Go green and win the battle against infection

Hospital cleaningWhilst cleanliness is important in all industry sectors, it is of critical importance in hospitals and other healthcare facilities such as care homes and rest homes. The standard of cleaning and hygiene in the healthcare industry serves the dual purpose of ensuring surface cleanliness and infection prevention and control.

Germs spread at a worrying pace and with the threat of harmful bacteria such as MRSA, E. coli and H1N1, which can result in serious illness and even death, regular and effective cleaning is needed to ensure these risks are reduced.

Many hospitals and healthcare facilities have increased the use of cleaning and disinfecting products to help prevent infection. However, conventional cleaning products and disinfectants can in themselves lead to health hazards caused by excessive and often unnecessary use of cleaning chemicals.

Potential health risks of cleaning chemicals
Conventional cleaning products are complex mixtures of chemical ingredients. Many of these ingredients are known be associated with asthma and other respiratory disorders. Some are even associated with dermatitis, neurological disorders and cancer.

In addition to these adverse human health effects, there is evidence that some cleaning product ingredients harm the environment, damaging aquatic ecosystems and causing air and water pollution. Dangerous compounds may also form when various cleaning products are inadvertently mixed both during cleaning and once they are tipped down the drain.

There are substantial issues concerning the safety of cleaning chemicals and technologies, both to cleaning staff and to the people who work or are based in the buildings being cleaned. The companies employing cleaning contractors and the contractors themselves, have a responsibility under Health and Safety legislation to carry out risk assessments to determine what risks arise from the use of cleaning machines, techniques and materials.

European Regulation on the Classification, Labelling and Packaging of Substances and Mixtures, known as the CLP Regulation, is already in force in the UK and all other countries in the European Union. This introduces some changes to how chemicals are classified, newly designed hazard symbols, called ‘pictograms’, and new wording to help those who need to know, to understand the hazards that are in the chemical they are using and how to use it safely. People with responsibility for assessing risks from cleaning chemicals should obviously read this information.

Safer cleaning
Concerns about adverse human and environmental health effects of conventional cleaning chemicals have led to the development of green cleaning products which can reduce human health and environmental effects as well as reduce costs.

How much more sensible it is to use, where possible, the latest cleaning systems which remove the risk of aggravating existing health problems or creating news ones, whilst achieving an extremely high standard of hygiene.

A common misconception is that green cleaning products do not work as well as traditional chemicals. Even today, virtually every care home and nursing home in the world, like every hospital, uses traditional cleaning products that are either applied with a cleaning machine or in the old-fashioned way with mop and bucket despite new, safer technologies being available devoted to maintaining health.

Green options available
There are several organisations in the world developing innovative technologies to permit an environmentally kinder way to clean.

Recent developments have seen eco-cleaning manufacturers launch natural (i.e. non-synthetic) green cleaning products made from plant products. These use plant-based cleaning products which contain enzymes, fatty acids, alcohols, esters, chelators and saponifiers derived from things like palm kernel, soy, peanut, corn, sunflower and canola. These create surfactants which use the natural chemistry of hydrophilic and hydrophobic bonds to attract oils, penetrate organic soils and hold dirt in a liquid suspension, which can then be easily wiped away. They are non-toxic, non-harmful, non-hazardous, readily biodegradable and extremely cost effective.

Sustainable ways of managing business is becoming more important and regulation is being introduced to set targets. Sustainability means leaving the world for future generations as we found it – or better. In cleaning terms, that can be interpreted as not doing anything that will damage our environment, or harm the people in it. More investment in research and development to eliminate chemical cleaning is needed if sustainability in cleaning is to be fully achieved.

Taking action
It is time for those who clean to put on the pressure for alternative ways of cleaning that do not use or disperse dangerous substances. You should regularly review the list of cleaning chemicals that are used in a healthcare setting and check whether safer and greener alternatives are available. 

Hospitals purchase thousands of different products requested by dozens of different departments. Often unknowingly, hospitals may purchase items that are toxic to workers or patients, or have serious environmental impacts. Hospitals and other healthcare facilities should ensure they have a green purchasing programme such as placing environmental criteria into tender documents to make sure they are implementing green policy.

The organisation ‘Healthcare without harm’ which is an international coalition of hospitals and health care systems says on its website: “Mercury, flame retardants and cleaning chemicals are among the many harmful substances hospitals can reduce their dependence on. A systematic programme at Vienna Hospital Association has reduced detergent use by 23 per cent and costs by 10 per cent.”

Equally, it is time for those who manufacture cleaning equipment and materials to divert a major part of their research and development budgets into achieving green techniques and equipment to make cleaning safer for everybody. Changes to reduce the harmful effects of cleaning must ensure that the alternatives provide effective infection prevention and control as well as being healthier, safe, and environmentally sound.

Stringent testing for green cleaning products
Green products have been proved against stringent testing criteria. For example, the European Ecolabel is a voluntary scheme, established in 1992 to encourage businesses to market products and services that are kinder to the environment. Products accredited with the Ecolabel have to meet a set of strict environmental and performance criteria which take into consideration the whole lifecycle of the product, covering the whole process of manufacturing and disposing of the product, from start to finish.

So what’s stopping you? There are not many procedures in medicine or health care that are the same today as they were decades ago. So why tackle cleaning the old way? Advancements in green cleaning mean that ecological methods can prevent infection and control in the healthcare setting whilst setting high standards of cleanliness.