The COVID-19 pandemic brought people’s attention to better hand-washing habits and covering their mouths when they sneeze or cough.
It should also bring attention to how our homes, schools and businesses are cleaned as well, according to a local indoor air quality expert.
“With COVID-19 it has all hit the fan and we are doing webinars across the country. Tuesday we did one for more than 100 people internationally,” said Richard Shaughnessy, who has been director of the University of Tulsa’s Indoor Air Research Program for more than 25 years.
For more than 10 years, his department’s research has focused on transmittal of illness through contact with bio-contamination on high-touch surfaces with further spread via hand-to-hand and person-to-person contact. They have been inundated with requests for information the past three months, he said.
The International Society for Indoor Air booked a webinar to reach its 40 countries. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Indoor Environments Division wants a webinar to be aimed at schools, he said.
With people sheltered at home and some now returning to the workplace, attention to air quality and cleaning practices should be a high priority in Oklahoma, too, he said.
However, when budgets get tight the first cuts often are made to janitorial staffs. Air inside many buildings recirculates to save on heating or cooling bills. But years’ worth of health and air-quality studies have shown workplaces sacrifice more in lost productivity and absenteeism than is saved attempting frugality in those ways, he said.
Shaughnessy has spent enough time studying what is left hanging in the air and on school desktops, doorknobs or restaurant tables to know just how much people share with each other on a constant basis without realizing it. Ninety-nine percent of that human “fingerprint” is harmless, but the other 1% can hold wicked potential, he said.
“When we touch a surface, whether we know it or not, we lay down a fingerprint that says who you are, where you’ve been and who and what you’ve come in contact with,” he said.
COVID-19 adds urgency because it is highly contagious. While much still is unknown about how it spreads, what is known is important, he said.
A New England Journal of Medicine study showed the virus can be viable in aerosol form in the air up to three hours, and that it remains viable for 24 hours on cardboard surfaces and 48 to 72 hours on plastic or stainless steel. Another key factor is 25% to 50% of those sharing the virus may have few or no symptoms, he said.
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people keep a 6-foot distance, Shaughnessy said another step back isn’t a bad idea because a sneeze can propel droplets 12 feet.
“If someone sneezes, don’t walk into that area,” he said.
Touching a surface and then touching your face is a bad idea, but we can also end up breathing what is on other surfaces, including in our carpets and floors.
“Especially with carpet, people tend to think, it’s down there and there it will stay, but as soon as we walk on it we bring it back up, so the idea of keeping all floors clean is very important because of re-suspension,” he said.
He said his message can cause some to worry a little too much and warned against “fly-by-night” products that offer “overnight miracle cures” that suddenly are making sales pitches to susceptible audiences.
“The message is that common sense goes a long way and, fortunately for us, this virus is very susceptible to common detergents and sanitizers,” he said.
Common soaps kill it given enough “dwell time.” Just like washing our hands for at least 20 seconds, people should let disinfectant or soap applied to surfaces “dwell” for a time before it’s wiped away with a clean cloth.
Wipe it off with a clean cloth for each new surface (or folded over to a clean side) and each surface should be wiped off in a single direction. The same goes for disposable cloths.
“How often do you see someone spray something down and then wipe it off immediately?” he said. “Or you see people cleaning tables in a restaurant or cleaning hand carts in a store and they’re using the same rag or cloth again and again.”
Directional wiping removes material from a surface, a circular motion does nothing, he said.
“The idea is to not rub around in circles. Don’t just smear it around,” he said.
For healthier air at home or at the office, vacuum cleaners with High Efficiency Particulate Arrestance, HEPA, filters are a must, he said.
Spraying the air with a disinfectant or air freshener like a Lysol or Febreze-type spray might smell nice to some, but it does not cleanse the air of airborne contaminants in a room. Air cleaners with HEPA filters are proven to be more effective to improve air quality at home or in the office, he said.
“A lot of research as been done since 1995 on numerous air cleaners,” he said. “They are tried-and-true and proven to be very effective.”