SAFETY: Close-Up on Disinfecting

by RaeAnne Marsh

Disinfecting office, home, stores and schools is top of mind during this COVID-19 pandemic. Cory Chalmers, CEO of Steri-Clean, Inc. and featured expert cleaner and host on A&E’s “Hoarders,” shares his expertise with In Business Magazine.

What are the most common misperceptions about how to disinfect for COVID-19?
The most common misconception, and made worse by overnight companies, is that just spraying disinfectants on surfaces will kill the virus. Disinfectants do not work unless they are sprayed onto surfaces that have very little soil load, or biofilms (the invisible clusters of germs and bacteria that cover surfaces that hands come in contact with frequently). Ironically, these are the same surfaces that hands often touch, either dropping off or picking up something like the COVID-19 virus. So high-touch surfaces (doorknobs, drawer pulls, cell phones, desks, appliance handles, light switches, sink faucets, etc.) are exactly where these viruses are spread, and until we give them a good cleaning and then apply the correct disinfectant for the proper dwell time, the surface is an absolute danger to us.

Are there differences in disinfecting for this coronavirus from normal anti-germ disinfecting?
There really isn’t. We are fortunate the COVID-19 virus falls into the class of “enveloped viruses,” which, on the scale of all microorganisms, is the easiest to kill. Because it has a very weak coating, the virus shell can be penetrated easily by heat and most disinfectants. If this virus were in a different class, it could change the disinfection process altogether, and common disinfectants like Lysol and bleach would not work.

Are different procedures necessary in different setting?
In offices, call centers and similar workplaces, the main concerns are the electronics. Areas with sensitive electronics require applications that limit the amount of moisture that is applied, reducing the risk of damage to expensive computers, phone systems, servers and more. Steri-Clean, over the past few weeks, has been called in to clean 911 operation centers and dam control rooms; both of these have very sensitive electronics, so it was imperative that we used processes to limit potential damage to their life-saving equipment.

Manufacturing plants pose a different problem, depending on what they are making. The unique challenge in these facilities can be the pre-clean. We have worked with industries like timber, for example, where the dust was everywhere and cleaning was very labor intensive. Food processing plants, on the other hand, are typically cleaned and disinfected daily, but we are limited as to what disinfectants we can use on food processing equipment, and must clean the equipment once we are done to remove the disinfectant — we require readings of less than 5 on our ATP Meters in food handling as required by the FDA.

In the case of retail stores or other public-facing businesses, other considerations come into play. When hired for retail, Steri-Clean explains to our customer the time and expense to clean items versus disposing of them. Clothing and absorbent materials really can’t be disinfected without sending them out to a contents restoration company. The choices are to dispose of them, take the chance of leaving them in the store and hoping the virus dies, or send them out to be professionally laundered — but then they cannot remain tagged as new items.

With restaurants, each location is set up differently but, much like the food processing plants, the main goal is to assure that the customer areas, employee areas and food preparation areas are properly cleaned, tested and safe. Steri-Clean has worked in and written contingency plans for restaurant chains all over the country and single mom-and-pop stores alike. We advise all our restaurant clients to be extra cautious and allow us to remove and dispose of any and all open food and containers that are not hermetically sealed or airtight. If a worker were infected with COVID-19, even products in coolers and freezers that cannot be properly disinfected would need to be disposed of as, according to the CDC, they have no evidence that the virus dies in cold storage or freezers.

The biggest unknown in cleaning houses is the amount of contents. Some homes we enter are like model homes and others (for those who know my TV hosting role on “Hoarders”) are home to hoarders, which makes the work extremely challenging.

What are the key procedures to disinfect for COVID-19?
As described in other sections, here is a bullet-point list of the most important things to do to make sure a home or business is safe:

  • Deep clean. Before any disinfectant is applied, surfaces must be cleaned to reduce the “soil load” and “biofilms” that are invisible to the naked eye but present on every surface we touch, which block our disinfectants from doing their job. The best way to remove these invisible biofilms is to fold a cleaning towel in half and then fold in half again. The towel now has eight clean squares, four on both sides. Use only one clean quadrant of the towel to clean a small area of countertop, or one appliance handle, and then flip it over and use another clean quadrant for the next area to clean. If the same towel or rag is used to clean an entire kitchen, for example, that towel is overloaded with germs and using it simply spreads them around from surface to surface.
  • Apply disinfectant. Not all disinfectants are rated the same. It is crucial to read the label on a disinfectant spray to learn what it is rated to kill, and how long it needs to stay wet on a surface to kill it. Every legal disinfectant has an EPA registration number on it, and that number can be checked on the EPA’s website to see if it is recommended for killing COVID-19. Lysol, for example, has an EPA Reg Number of 777-89and, when typed into the EPAs site, it comes back as “yes” for Emerging Pathogens claims, so it works. Numbers that come back with a “no” should not be used for COVID-19.
  • Finally, some kind of qualifying of the work that has been done should be provided. Any reputable cleaning company can test the surfaces and prove their cleaning was affective. We utilize ATP meters, which measure cellular activity on the surfaces we test. While viruses do not contain cells, we know that when we clean surfaces and have removed all cellular life, then applied an EPA-approved disinfectant, any virus left on that surface would be killed.

Asked about making disinfecting part of his grocery shopping, Chalmers had this to share:
I actually do disinfect my groceries before bringing them into my house. The process I use is as follows:

  • Set up a table outside and completely clean it, then apply disinfectant for 10 minutes.
  • While wearing gloves, I remove everything from bags.
  • Anything that is in a box (cereal, granola bars, microwavable popcorn, 12 packs of soda, pancake batter, frozen pizzas) I open the box, and dump the plastic wrapped contents into the bag.
  • The paper container goes straight into our exterior trash can.
  • All hard, non-porous containers like milk, metal cans, glass jars, plastic containers, etc. are wiped down to remove biofilm (same process as inside the home), then apply disinfectant for 10 minutes. It will need to be reapplied a few times to stay wet for 10 minutes.
  • Fruit and vegetables are dumped from grocery bag straight into a sink filled with soapy water and allowed to soak for 10 minutes, then hand washed and rinsed. I am not buying anything that the skin is not completely removed to eat.
  • Once the proper dwell time has been achieved, items are brought into the house and put away.

Cory Chalmers is the CEO of Steri-Clean, Inc. and featured expert cleaner and host on A&E’s “Hoarders.” Chalmers founded Steri-Clean, Inc. in 1995 while working as a paramedic, after noticing a huge need to help people with hoarding disorders. In 1997, he was hired as a firefighter in Orange County, California, and quickly advanced to the rank of Captain. Bringing his knowledge of city codes, the violation process, POs and S.O.P.s, Chalmers has also become one of the nation’s leaders in hazardous materials, emergency management and hoarding/biohazard response and remediation. He is responsible for the rapid growth of Steri-Clean, Inc. from a small family-run business to a multi-million-dollar company with offices throughout the nation. Chalmers also runs a worldwide Yahoo cleanup talk group, multiple online hoarding support groups and several websites that assist the public with valuable resources and information. He is well known throughout the United States as the leader in hoarding remediation and support.

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