Bacteria, Fungi Spores, Oh My!
When you are in the business of cleaning, questions often arise regarding disinfecting and sanitizing. Recent Flu epidemics and the MRSA strain of bacteria have raised concerns among people regarding how to protect from possible infection. Fortunately, antimicrobials offer protection from unseen germs and bacteria on many surfaces. There are three levels of antimicrobials that kill or limit microbes and the spores that they use to reproduce.
A sterilizer kills 100% of microbes and spores. In the spectrum of antimicrobial activity, a sterilizer is the strongest. Sterilization is impractical for everyday use because bacterial and fungal spores are extremely difficult to destroy. Extreme heat is one method of sterilization, but it is not practical outside of a medical environment. Chemical sterilizers are toxic, corrosive irritants that are not safe for use by the general public.
To sanitize a surface means to reduce levels of harmful microbes to a safe level. Most chemicals sanitizers have little or no effect on certain bacteria like Tuberculosis, and improper use may create resistant strains of harmful bacteria.
Disinfectant is an EPA regulated term that can only be used on the label of products that have been tested and proven to kill or destroy at least 99.9% of all microorganisms; this doesn’t mean they destroy spores. There are a variety of disinfectants available to consumers, including common household bleach. Caution must be exercised when using bleach or any other EPA registered disinfectant to follow label directions carefully as misuse can lead to damage to materials or health risks.
Disinfectants are named as to what kind of organisms they kill. The suffix cide, meaning “to kill” is added after the type of microorganism it targets. So a bactericide kills bacteria, fungicide kills fungi, and a virucide destroys viruses. Read the label to find out what the product is designed to do.
Making the Choice
What should you use? Since sterilizers are only needed for critical jobs like surgical instruments, we are left with disinfectants and sanitizers. As we have seen, sanitizers do not have the “kill power” that disinfectants do. So why would you choose to use a sanitizer instead of a disinfectant? You make the decision by weighing the risk presented by the microorganisms against the risks involved with the chemical itself. For example, there are chemical sanitizers that are used in commercial kitchens which are designed for treating food preparation surfaces. These products control bacteria on relatively clean surfaces but present almost no risk because of low toxicity.
In a hospital things are different with known health issues at stake. People with a variety of sicknesses create the potential for contamination of many surfaces. Also, there are people with compromised immune systems who could become seriously ill from exposure to common microbes. When the risk from infection are greater, the necessity for a high grade disinfectant becomes apparent. Although these tend to have higher levels of toxicity, the potential risk warrants their use.
Your home is similar. Your kitchen counter is generally clean. Therefore keeping it clean usually means simply maintaining a sanitary condition. If you prepare raw meats on the counter you may consider using a good sanitizer/cleaner. In the bathroom a stronger disinfectant might be appropriate. You could also use a surface disinfectant in sick rooms to kill infectious microbes.
A clean home is important. But, the most important thing to remember is that all cleaning agents, sanitizers and disinfectants should be stored and used according to the label directions. Failure to do so could cause more harm than good.