Monday, February 4, 2013

What Does Clean Mean?

A recent study determined that developing asthma was strongly associated with the workplace environment. The researchers associated 18 jobs with an increased risk of developing the condition. Four of these were cleaning jobs, and three more were noted to involve likely exposure to cleaning products.

This is far from the first study to correlate asthma and cleaning products. In 2006, a literature review determined that "accumulating, consistent evidence” linked asthma risk and cleaning work. In 2010, the same journal re-visited the issue. In an article entitled "Update on Asthma and Cleaners," the authors noted that further studies had verified and strengthened the link between jobs in the cleaning industry and evidence of asthma. They added that others who worked around and with cleaning products, such as homemakers and healthcare professionals, showed similar effects. Other articles and studies have also made that point. A study examining people who cleaned their own homes found that the use of cleaning sprays at least weekly was associated with asthma symptoms.

In a previous post I mentioned the need to think about what the word "fresh" really means. Similarly, I think it's wise to ponder the word "clean." Is coating a surface with chemicals that cause asthma and other health effects making it clean? I don't think so.

There are many non-toxic options for cleaning. The cheapest and most basic cleaning aid is water. It’s known as the universal solvent because of its ability to dissolve more materials than any other substance. The power of pure water can be enhanced with such things as heat (using a steam cleaner, for instance), pressure (using a pressure washer), time (soaking an item for a while), or special applicators, such as microfiber cloths. Water alone can’t clean everything, but it can clean more than we’re likely to give it credit for.

Sometimes the goal is simply to make a surface free of visible dirt. Other times the goal is to disinfect. Water can do that, too. The heat of a steam cleaner can kill germs, of course, but water doesn't have to be heated to perform that task. A test of various disinfectant products used to clean a computer keyboard found that “all disinfectants, as well as the sterile water control, were effective at removing or inactivating more than 95% of the test bacteria.” In other words, wiping for five seconds with clean water was as effective as wiping for five seconds with bleach, alcohol, or the other disinfectant wipes tested.

Another study of disinfectants also verified the power of water (salt water in this case) to disinfect. Researchers at the University of Alberta looked at whether a quick swipe with an antibacterial product was enough to disinfect a surface. They found that it was not, and that three passes was the optimal number. Interestingly, they also found that three wipes with a salt-water solution were equally effective. The authors note, “When the surface was swiped three or more times, the saline wipe appeared to be equally effective as disinfectant wipes.”

Let’s refuse to believe the marketing hype. Let’s protect our own health and the health of those around us by refusing to use products that are not only unnecessary, but harmful. Let’s think about what “clean” really means.

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