When I was named executive director of the Cleaning Industry Research Institute (CIRI) nearly three years ago, I had the understanding, borne of long experience, that the cleaning industry was largely bereft of recent and meaningful cleaning science research. Yes, I was familiar with some older research from the 1990s and 2000s, much of it developed during Dr. Michael Berry’s tenure as deputy director of the U.S. EPA’s Indoor Environmental Assessment Office, that demonstrated a correlation between unhealthy indoor environments and unclean indoor environments. Similarly, CIRI itself had conducted an important study that established rapid ATP bioluminance testing as a viable measure of cleaning effectiveness. The study was the science foundation of the ISSA Clean Standard for K-12 Schools, but it was done in 2009-10.
These studies were done during the heyday of the “cleaning for health” movement, a movement begun, for all intents and purposes, with publication of Berry’s 1994 book, Protecting the Built Environment: Cleaning for Health. By 2020, the term “cleaning for health” had largely been coopted by marketing people, its message about the importance of effective, high-performance cleaning swallowed up by feel-good assurances that “we’re all cleaning for health now.” And yet new, supporting data was increasingly hard to find.
After settling into my position with CIRI, one experience in particular made me rethink what I thought I knew. At the suggestion of an industry colleague, Joe Hughes, I had a conversation with Karen Dannemiller, a professor at Ohio State University, about an academic conference on carpet and resuspension planned for July 2019. Subsequently, Dr. Dannemiller invited me to attend and present at the conference based on my experience as it related to cleaning.
I was amazed at the amount and quality of research presented at the conference by members of the academic community. Interestingly, to many of them my presentation was a highlight of the conference because I brought a real-world perspective that was otherwise lacking.
Both during and especially after the conference it donned on me that the problem wasn’t that the research wasn’t being done, the problem was that there was a disconnect between the cleaning industry and those doing the research. As a consequence, frequently the research was like the proverbial tree in the forest that makes no noise when it falls because no one is there to hear it. In fact, a great deal of research was being done that related, directly or indirectly, to cleaning. Yet, because the research was not reaching cleaning industry professionals, often it rattled around academia for a bit, published, perhaps, in peer-review journals read by other academics, before settling on a cyber shelf and forgotten.
It became clear that an important part of CIRI’s evolving mission must be to find and amplify this academic research so that those involved in the business of cleaning, including disaster restoration and remediation, would gain access to this research data. Equally important, the research community needed input from cleaning professionals. Too often research protocols were based on inadequate information. Research that is irrelevant to real-world conditions, although sometimes necessary in order to establish baselines, is significantly less valuable and useful.
Mission in hand, CIRI set forth to build the bridge between academic research and business practice. The first step was to secure the position of host organization for ISIAQ’s (International Society of Indoor Air Quality and Climate) Healthy Buildings 2021 conference. ISIAQ is a preeminent academic research organization that focuses on indoor environments. Once the position of host organization was secured in the summer of 2019, we set about the process of building the bridge, adopting “Bridging the Gap Between Research and Practice” as the conference tagline.
And then along came COVID … and the job became astronomically — easier! At first blush, that may seem counter intuitive. After all, COVID turned the world upside down. But in this upside-down world, all of a sudden cleaning, disinfection and research were not only on the same team, they were essential — to one another as well as to the health and wellbeing of everyone threatened by the pandemic.
Scores of virus studies that had been gathering cyber dust on cyber shelves were revisited by researchers who used them to design new studies with SARS-CoV-2 in mind. Initially their work focused on the characteristics of the virus. What are the most common routes of exposure, of infection? How do you minimize risk?
Scientists looked at the data on registered disinfectants. Which were most effective against similar enveloped viruses? The EPA’s List N is now a must-have resource. Quickly came a key question, then another and another and another. What role does cleaning have? What is more important, cleaning or disinfection? Are all cleaning processes the same, or are some more effective than others? Can certain processes actually increase risk of exposure by stirring up the virus rather than removing it?
Combining lab research with field practice and assistance from organizations like CIRI, answers have been found and solutions developed. Equally important, but more slowly, imposters posing as solutions — such as “hygiene theatre” — have been exposed and discredited. Different technologies are being examined and assessed using Michael Berry’s definition of the clean condition as a guide: an environment free of unwanted matter.
Most recently, the CDC and others have deemphasized the importance of surface cleaning as it relates to COVID. To some extent this is a welcome correction, as it is based on the facts as we understand them: the primary route of infection is through inhalation. That said, it should be kept in mind that environments are literally fluid, with air being the fluid. And research has shown that what is in the air will go to surfaces and what is on surfaces — especially viruses, which are incredibly small and light — will go to the air. The solution isn’t to clean the air and forget about surfaces, any more than it is to clean surfaces and forget about the air. The solution is a combination of both.
The science of cleaning is very much a work in progress, but COVID has brought new awareness and appreciation for what “cleaning for health” really means. It’s not marketing hype; it can literally be a matter of life and death. An opportunity for cleaning contractors? Yes. But even more, a responsibility.
John Downey, a veteran of more than 45 years in the cleaning industry, is executive director of the Cleaning Industry Research Institute (CIRI) and editor of CIRI’s peer review publication the Journal of Cleaning Science (JoCS). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about CIRI, visit: www.ciriscience.org.