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The Costs of Chemical-Based Disinfection are Too High. We Can Do Better.

By Kevin Samy, Government Affairs Lead at R-Zero

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring issued a stern warning against neglecting the immense risks of hazardous chemicals use, especially in pesticides.

Her book helped encourage policymakers to take a hard look at the widespread application of DDT, a harmful pesticide, adding fuel to a burgeoning environmental movement that resulted in historic laws and the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

From 2013 to 2015, I spent time as a senior advisor to the head of the EPA. Not many people realize that the chemicals we use to disinfect our spaces — usage of which has dramatically increased during this pandemic — haven’t changed for generations, and neither has the risk that comes with them. In fact, these chemicals are regulated by, you guessed it, The Office of Pesticide Programs at the EPA. 

Don’t get me wrong, if used properly and carefully, chemical-based disinfection can lessen certain health risks — but not without bringing about health consequences of its own. 

We don’t have to accept those risks as the norm. We don’t have to rely on hazardous chemicals to disinfect our classrooms, offices, or gyms. We can do better.

The scientific community has long understood UV-C light’s power to disinfect, and the federal government is starting to make that understanding clearer to the public. Proven to kill all known pathogens, including those in the air, UV-C is an incredibly effective disinfection technology, and one that hospitals have relied on for over a century. But general adoption of UV-C has been slow, the result of historically high prices and the absence of uniform performance standards. 

Now, as new players enter the marketplace, driving down prices and accelerating regulation, that’s changing. Safer and more effective than chemicals, UV-C is poised to become the disinfectant of the future.

In fact, R-Zero’s UV-C technology will have displaced over 150,000 gallons of hazardous chemicals by the year’s end. That’s the equivalent of over 17 large tanker trucks of chemical disinfectant — and all of the associated health and financial costs.

The Costs of Chemical Disinfection 

Manual chemical disinfection, which involves applying liquid chemicals with a rag or paper towel, is the chosen disinfection method for most organizations. Yet, some studies have shown this method to be only 50% effective on surfaces. On top of that, it largely fails to address airborne pathogens, a major mode of disease spread. 

The cost of worker illness and injury in the US is more than $225 billion every year. How much of that cost alone can be traced to a missed surface or an airborne pathogen that rags and wipes can’t reach?

But the health consequences of inefficacy pale in comparison to health consequences of toxic chemical exposure. Even before the pandemic, the health risks associated with chemical disinfectant use were well documented. In the short-term, improper use of these chemicals —including errors in dilution, mixing, and application — can result in respiratory issues, skin and eye damage, and other serious health consequences. Over the long term, repeated exposure has been linked to lasting health conditions, including progressive lung disease and asthma. A Harvard study found that nurses who used disinfectants at least once a week for 8 years saw their risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — the third leading cause of death by disease in the US — increase by 22 percent.  

Now, with chemical disinfectant use skyrocketing amid the pandemic, those health risks have been further heightened. Calls to poison centers can provide a snapshot of the surge in exposure in recent months. From January 2020 (before the pandemic hit hard) through the end of March 2020 (after lockdowns started taking place across the country), the daily number of calls to poison centers increased sharply for exposures to both chemical cleaners and disinfectants. 

Number of daily exposures to cleaners and disinfectants reported to U.S. poison centers — United States, January–March 2018, 2019, and 2020 (Source: CDC)

 Notably, from 2019-2020, the inhaling of hazardous fumes associated with disinfection products accounted for the largest increase by exposure route — over 100 percent. Another worrisome statistic: accidents involving kids 5 years and younger have consistently represented a large percentage of total calls year after year.

It’s not just those misusing chemicals or directly interacting with them who are at risk. A recent study found that chemical disinfectants can linger in the air for 20 minutes after application, which means people who use spaces undergoing frequent disinfection might also suffer health consequences. 

New methods for applying chemicals may only exacerbate existing health risks. While fogging, or spraying a room with a disinfecting mist, can speed up coverage, “spraying is not recommended and can be irritating to mucous membranes,” according to Albert Rizzo, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association.

As more and more schools and businesses reopen, and with disinfectant use likely to remain high for years to come, this is a serious problem we can’t afford to ignore.

Dr. Claudia Miller, an immunologist, allergist and co-author of Chemical Exposures: Low Levels and High Stakes, has said “This is a hazardous proposition … cleaners tend to go in with hugely toxic chemicals. We’re creating another problem for a whole group of people, and I’m not sure we’re actually controlling infections.”

While disinfection is a necessity, we don’t have to trade a large health risk for a smaller one. Nor should we accept a disinfection solution that is largely unreliable. Rather, we should aspire to find a high-efficacy solution that can eliminate those risks completely.

A Safer Future Demands Less Exposure to Harmful Chemicals

UV-C solves both of the problems associated with chemical disinfection. Not only does it eliminate the need to rely on harmful chemicals, but it’s also far more effective than its counterpart. Studies show that UV-C disinfection can reliably destroy up to 99.99% of pathogens on surfaces and in the air in a standard room.

Contrary to popular belief, UV-C is also more affordable than chemical disinfection over the long term. Aside from the cost of the device itself, the only major recurring cost associated with UV-C technology is that of the electricity required to run it —think, the same amount of energy used by a hair dryer per cycle. There’s no need to continually purchase chemicals or increase spending on custodial labor. 

R-Zero’s partners are already seeing significant savings and benefits. One such example is Westlake Compounds — the largest PVC compound company in the world, with over 9,400 employees across 36 locations in North America, 10 in Europe, and 5 in Asia. The organization recently replaced their chemical disinfection strategy with R-Zero’s Arc, running UV cycles 3x per day across control rooms, offices, break rooms, bathrooms and maintenance shops. (Further bolstering their disinfection efforts, Arc provides up to 60% more germ killing UV-C than other systems, which allows for faster cycle times and more efficient disinfection.) Since implementing UV-C disinfection, Westlake Compounds’ largest US facility is reporting fewer sick days (zero positive cases of COVID-19) and increased operational efficiency — already generating meaningful cost savings to their business.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring captured a turning point in our understanding of the health risks associated with chemical use. In response to that moment, American society made the fundamental changes necessary to lessen those risks, and our lives are all the better for it.

Today, a global pandemic has brought about a turning point of its own. This moment calls for a similar moment of change. With the right tools, we can build a future that is safer, healthier, and more prosperous for everyone.

R-Zero is working to make that future a reality.


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