Why worry about disinfection? The rise of super bacteria, deadly virus outbreaks, and increasing levels of allergens have put people of all nations on edge and heightened the awareness of being clean.
Recent studies have shown our environment is much more filthy than meets the eye1. Your car may appear clean but there are a multitude of contaminants that you can’t see but in fact are there. Contaminants such as bacteria, fungi, allergens, and micro-bugs (like dust mites, etc.) fill those tiny spaces in the seats, floors, vents, etc. Cleaning may remove contaminants from the major surfaces only to have bacteria and funguses reappear from a secret recess.
Common dust mite — highly allergenic and found in 80 percent of American homes1.
If each year we shed up to 26 gallons of sweat just in our bed2, how much ends up in our car seats? Of course sweat along with dead skin (over 8.8 lbs a year3), animal dander, etc. not only are allergens themselves but also provide great food sources for bacteria, fungus, and, yes, dust mites and other micro-bugs (see the picture, below). In fact, according to the American Lung Association four out of five homes in the United States have at least one bed infested with dust mites. That’s 80 percent! Imagine what our cars must contain considering they are an even better environment to breed mites.
REMOVE AND DISINFECT
It is no longer just about keeping the operating room sterile. We need to get more serious about our homes and cars. Cars with their small confined spaces are especially vulnerable to rapid bacterial and fungal growth.
So how do we do it? Simple: remove and disinfect.
Clearly a dirty car with food stains, dog hair, dirt, filth, and piles of junk does not need much imagination to visualize the swarms of bacteria swirling in the air and slithering through the filth of the car. Obviously this must be removed. But it is the clean car that can be so deceptive. Surfaces that appear clean can in fact be crawling with bacteria and micro-bugs. Micro layers of sweat, dead skin, food particles, etc., all too small to be seen with the naked eye, form bio-layers — perfect breeding grounds for bacteria. This is especially true in cracks and crevices that your vacuum and hand rags can’t reach.
Unfortunately for most of us it’s “out of sight out of mind,” but this is exactly the time to strike. If we wait until we can see or smell the problem, then, like termites in the wall or plaque in the arteries, it is usually too late.
This is why deep disinfection after removal is so important.
There are many good disinfectants available today and always new ones being developed. Which to choose and how they work inside the car are the questions that beg answers.
In the world of disinfectants there are really two classes: oxidizing agents and everything else (namely alcohols and phenols). Alcohols are primarily used as antiseptics for human skin and tissue and rarely used for surface disinfection. We’ll stick to the oxidizing agents or oxidizers.
Oxidizers work by removing electrons from the target’s atoms. This is usually the membrane protecting the germ. Once the membrane is penetrated the cell quickly dies.
At the top of the list of oxidizing agents is chlorine. Chlorine remains the gold standard in disinfectant and by far surpasses all other forms. We produce millions of gallons of chlorine yearly to take care of our problem with bugs. But chlorine, like all disinfectants, has its drawbacks:
Toxic. It may kill bugs but it can also kill you. Chlorine attacks all living cells including your own. Whether you burn your hands on it or choke on its strong fumes, chlorine has adverse health effects on humans.
Corrosive. Chlorine is highly corrosive attacking metals, bleaching colors, and embrittling plastics.
Residue. Chlorine also leaves behind nasty residues contaminating the environment and creating potential hazards (not the most popular in an ever increasingly “green” culture).
Table 1: Comparisons of common disinfectants4
In fact, chlorine has so many problems that we have created numerous chlorine-based compounds to help reduce these problematic side effects: • Sodium hypochlorite (household bleach) • Calcium hypochlorite • Chloramine • Chloramine-T • Chlorine dioxide (most commonly used for purifying water) • Sodium chlorite • Sodium chlorate • Potassium chlorate
Just to name a few. Of course the more we modify the chlorine the less effective the compound becomes at oxidizing and thus more is needed to kill bugs.
Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) is often used as both an antiseptic and a disinfectant.
Ozone or O3 is perhaps the most misunderstood disinfectant largely due to preposterous claims by unscrupulous vendors and the simple fact you can’t sell it in a bottle. Nevertheless, ozone remains one of the strongest disinfectants known to man and we have barely begun to tap its potential. It is five to six times more powerful than chlorine when used against many viruses and up to 70 times more powerful than chlorine against micro parasites like giardia, etc. (see Table 1, above). Ozone has the huge advantage of decaying to friendly oxygen, leaving behind no residue or any trace that it was ever there.
Unfortunately ozone is a gas and, while effective in water purification, gases are very poor at surface disinfection simply because they don’t make the required contact, thus requiring excessively long exposure times to be effective (often on the order of days).
The Biggest Challenge Is Delivery
In fact the biggest problem is not really what disinfectant you choose as much as how you apply it. The key is your disinfectant must make contact with the contaminant or even the most powerful disinfectant will do little harm to the bugs. So whether you dunk, spray, wipe, or gas, getting contact time with the germs is your biggest concern. Spray and wipe downs have been the traditional forms of cleaning surfaces and will continue to dominate primarily because you both remove and disinfectant in one step. Nevertheless this technique often fails to make the needed contact with gems lurking in cracks, crevices, and other hard-to-reach places. What’s more, many materials such as upholstery, carpet, the header material in the car, etc. need much more care in cleaning than, say, a stainless steel operating table.
Misting or vapor technologies have shown great promise for surface sterilization, disinfection, and deodorizing. They combine the flexibility of gas in penetrating every nook, cranny, crevice, upholstery, carpet, etc. with the high-contact advantages of a liquid. Disinfectant misters are especially suited for cars with all of their small spaces, hard-to-reach areas and delicate fabrics. This approach can also provide huge labor savings, eliminating the need to manually probe every small crevice.
A disinfectant mister used in the auto industry.
Currently a lot of work is being done on blending different disinfectant cocktails and delivering it in a mist form. Both hydrogen peroxide mist and ozone mist blends have been shown to be effective at killing superbugs and are employed by many hospitals to reduce the prevalence of hospital-acquired infections5.
The car care industry is ripe to exploit such technologies to provide customers a service not only pleasing to their eyes and nose, but also good for their health.
Todd Garlick is senior scientist and director for BGT Hygienics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can visit the company on the web at www.bettergt.com.