U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to reopen primary schools in June was met with “alarm” back in mid-May. According to the British National Education Union (NEU), 85% of its 49,000 members “disagreed with plans to restart lessons from June 1” and 92% said they “would not feel safe with the proposed wider opening of schools.”
As reported by The U.S. Sun,1 one suggestion brought forth by the teachers’ union at that time was to spray pupils down with disinfectant mist before entering school buildings to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Mary Bousted, joint general-secretary of the NEU, told The Sun:2
“‘In China, children stand outside the school gates and are sprayed front and back with disinfectant, their shoes are sprayed, they wash their hands with sanitizer, they must take off their mask and replace it with a new one, and their temperature is taken remotely.’
Asked if a similar regime should be introduced here, she said: ‘Yes. They’re doing that in China and South Korea and they have a minuscule number of new cases.'”
In the end, such disinfection protocols do not appear to have been passed. Either way, reopening of schools in the U.K. didn’t quite go as planned. Opposition was so great, the government conceded, limiting the reopening to specific primary schools on a part-time basis only, starting June 15.3
Now, reopening of all schools is planned for September, and parents who refuse to send their children back to school face a £60 fine. If not paid within 21 days, the fine is doubled.
Many parents in the U.K. are still resisting the reopening of all schools in September, as Public Health England COVID-19 surveillance reports suggest the limited school openings in June may have contributed to an increase in positive cases.4
By the end of June, 10 schools in Lincolnshire reportedly had to re-close due to outbreaks of positive cases.5 Curiously, data from dozens of other countries show school openings have not resulted in any significant increases among students, parents or staff.6
US School District Uses Fans to Disinfect Students
In related news, some U.S. school districts are implementing comprehensive disinfection protocols, but not of students directly. For example, Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District in southern Arizona will use a Power Breezer fan to disperse disinfectant in classrooms and on buses. Bryan Hoadley, chief revenue officer with Power Breezer explained the process to Fox 13 News:7
“We mixed EPA approved disinfectants following the CDC guidelines, we dilute it to about a point one solution in water… and then we disperse it over 5 to 6 minutes…You get a microfilm of that disinfectant on all the surfaces, you let it sit for the dwell time anywhere from 5 to 8 minutes depending on the product you’re using …
You’re not going to have anybody in the room while you’re doing the disinfecting. We recommend that you start the machine, you vacate the room, let the machine do its work and then come and turn it off with a mask on or something like that. So then once it’s ventilated, it’s very safe.”
New Normal: Toxic Disinfectants and Social Distancing Pods
Environmental health experts are expressing concern, however. Some worry that anxious staff may resort to disinfecting rooms and areas when children are present, thereby raising the potential for harmful health effects. As reported by E&E News:8
“Stephanie Holm, who co-directs the Western States Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit, which is funded by both EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention … is especially concerned about the use of hospital-grade disinfectants like bleaches or quaternary ammonium compounds, often called quats.
Studies have found exposure to such chemicals can create chronic respiratory conditions, like asthma, in cleaning workers and farmers who commonly use them. Using such chemicals in schools, which are often poorly ventilated, and around kids with vulnerable, developing respiratory systems could create a toxic result …
Alexandra Gorman Scranton, director of science and research at Women’s Voices for the Earth … is worried that underfunded schools with overtaxed custodial staff will be tempted to get students involved in the cleaning by, for example, giving kids disinfectant wipes to use on their own desks. ‘Kids and teachers aren’t trained in how to use these products — kids aren’t supposed to be near those wipes,’ she said.
Many school systems — including New York City schools — have invested in electrostatic disinfectant sprayers to make cleaning more efficient. But Holm said she is concerned about plans to ‘mist’ cleaning products, especially if it is done while children are present or shortly before their arrival — an idea that was floated by her own California district.
‘They had a plan at one point where half the kids would come in the mornings and half in the afternoons and the custodial staff would just mist it all in between, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God’ … I ended up at a school board meeting saying, ‘I’m a national expert on this, please let me offer my services.”
Misting chemicals lets them linger in the air longer, making it more likely they will be inhaled by students and staff. It’s also not effective, Holm said.”
In related news, images in Mirror9 show just how far some schools are going to insulate the children against the virus. Kindergarteners in the Wat Khlong Toey School in Bangkok, Thailand, are literally penned into small individual plastic “pods,” inside of which they also have to wear a face mask.
WHO Advises Against Disinfectants
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has actually advised against trying to kill SARS-CoV-2 with disinfectants, both outdoors or across large indoor spaces, stating it may do more harm than good. They also strongly advise against spraying disinfectants on people.
This is one time where it actually appears that the WHO got it right, which is beyond shocking as they have been dead wrong on virtually every other issue. Just like it is unwise to use antibacterial soap, it is even worse to inhale toxic disinfectants that are targeting the virus. As noted by the WHO:10
“Spraying disinfectants can result in risks to the eyes, respiratory or skin irritation and the resulting health effects. Spraying or fogging of certain chemicals, such as formaldehyde, chlorine-based agents or quaternary ammonium compounds, is not recommended due to adverse health effects on workers in facilities where these methods have been utilized.
Spraying or fumigation of outdoor spaces, such as streets or marketplaces, is also not recommended to kill the COVID-19 virus or other pathogens because disinfectant is inactivated by dirt and debris and it is not feasible to manually clean and remove all organic matter from such spaces.”
Disinfection Efforts Won’t Quell Spread of Infection
Similarly, scientists warn that making deep-cleaning a priority is not going to have a significant impact on the spread of the virus, as surface transmission appears to be minimal in the first place. As reported by Becker’s Hospital Review:11
“Businesses … are making a big to-do about cleaning … New York City even closed down its subway system to deep clean the seats, walls and poles with antiseptics. But this might not be helping curb the spread of the new coronavirus at all.
The CDC updated its guidelines in May to say that surface transmission ‘isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads.’ Another scientist, Emanuel Goldman, Ph.D., a microbiology professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark told The Atlantic:12 ‘Surface transmission of COVID-19 is not justified at all by the science’ …
By and large scientists agree that the virus primary spread through the air through droplets expelled when a person sneezes or coughs or via aerosolized droplets expelled during conversations.”
As noted in Derek Thompson’s article13 in The Atlantic, “Hygiene Theater Is a Huge Waste of Time,” the emphasis on sanitation really only results in a false sense of security, and doesn’t actually lower the risk of the disease overall:
“There is a historical echo here. After 9/11, physical security became a national obsession, especially in airports, where the Transportation Security Administration patted down the crotches of innumerable grandmothers for possible explosives. My colleague Jim Fallows repeatedly referred to this wasteful bonanza as ‘security theater.’
COVID-19 has reawakened America’s spirit of misdirected anxiety, inspiring businesses and families to obsess over risk-reduction rituals that make us feel safer but don’t actually do much to reduce risk — even as more dangerous activities are still allowed. This is hygiene theater.”
Surface Transmission Risk Has Been Exaggerated
According to microbiology professor Goldman, cited above, early research suggesting SARS-CoV-2 could remain viable on various surfaces for hours or even days were based on unrealistically potent concentrations of the virus.
To mimic the experimental conditions used, upward of 100 infected people would need to sneeze on the surface in question, which is highly unlikely to happen in the real world. Goldman reviews this and other discrepancies in a July 3, 2020, article in The Lancet:14
“In a study in which the authors tried to mimic actual conditions in which a surface might be contaminated by a patient, no viable SARS-CoV was detected on surfaces,” he notes, adding: “I do not disagree with erring on the side of caution, but this can go to extremes not justified by the data.
Although periodically disinfecting surfaces and use of gloves are reasonable precautions especially in hospitals, I believe that fomites that have not been in contact with an infected carrier for many hours do not pose a measurable risk of transmission in non-hospital settings. A more balanced perspective is needed to curb excesses that become counterproductive.”
Real-World Example of How Low Fomite Transmission Risk Is
In his Atlantic article,15 Thompson highlights a study16,17 that looked at the spread of infection in a 19-story skyscraper in Seoul, South Korea, that housed a mix of apartments and offices, including a busy call center on the 11th floor. Tenants and staff shared a lobby and several elevators. March 8, 2020, it was discovered a call center worker had contracted COVID-19.
Surprisingly, only 97 of the more than 1,000 people in the building ended up testing positive for the disease, and 94 of them worked in the call center. Moreover, the majority of those infected in the call center also sat on the same side of the office as patient zero.
This strongly suggests COVID-19 primarily spreads via airborne transmission. Despite the many opportunities for fomite transmission (i.e., via contact with contaminated surfaces), such contacts simply didn’t result in widespread illness.
“The scientists I spoke with emphasized that people should still wash their hands, avoid touching their face when they’ve recently been in public areas, and even use gloves in certain high-contact jobs.
They also said deep cleans were perfectly justified in hospitals. But they pointed out that the excesses of hygiene theater have negative consequences,” Thompson writes.18
Negative consequences include forgoing more effective prevention strategies such as hand-washing, and building a false sense of security — both of which can lead to higher infection rates.
Safe and Effective Disinfectants for Your Home
As noted by the WHO, some disinfectants can also trigger health problems, especially if inhaled, which is why fogging students, as proposed in England, is both unwarranted and unwise. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, poisonings related to cleaning solutions have also risen by as much as 20%, which speaks to the hazards of these products.
Excessive use of disinfectants may ultimately worsen bacterial drug resistance as well. For years, scientists and health professionals have talked about how excessive cleanliness and widespread use of antibacterial products are harming public health, especially that of children. It remains to be seen just how long it’ll take to ease the unreasonable fear of germs instilled during the COVID-19 pandemic once it’s officially over.
That said, if someone in your household is sick, wiping off commonly used surfaces may certainly be advisable. As reviewed in “What Is the Best Disinfectant for Surfaces?” your best bets include:
- Alcohol-based disinfectant containing between 60% and 80% alcohol.19,20
- 3% hydrogen peroxide. Please note that this is the concentration for topical disinfectant, not for nebulization. The recommended concentration for nebulization is 30 times lower at 0.1%.
- Accelerated hydrogen peroxide (AHP), sold under the brand name Rescue and some others. Compared to pharmaceutical grade 3% hydrogen peroxide, AHP works much faster, so you don’t need to wet the surface for as long. AHP can kill viruses in as little as 30 seconds.21
If your aim is to disinfect and sterilize, remember to clean the surface first. Soap and water is likely one of the best alternative strategies here, as the soap will effectively inactivate viruses.
Once the surface is clean of dirt and sticky grime, spray your chosen disinfectant on the surface and let sit for up to several minutes before wiping. The time required will depend on the disinfectant you use. For hand sanitation, soap and warm water are the most effective. Only use alcohol-based hand sanitizers if soap and water are unavailable.