Are You Winning the Battle With Biofilm?

Apply the disinfectant, kill the germs — right? Not necessarily.

With the advent of modern disinfectants, many of us may feel a false sense of security when using germicides. Why?

Scientists are finding germs are apparently smarter, tougher and more organized than anyone ever imagined. Recent discoveries have shown that bacteria on damp surfaces do not remain as isolated and free floating life forms but communicate and colonize with other germs to build a tough, protective biofilm that can withstand even the strongest disinfectants.

Scientific American Magazine reports that bacteria communicate to build “microcolonies within a sophisticated architecture” that protects the organisms in a kind of walled — if somewhat slimy — city.

According to Science News Magazine, scientists report that, “Pseudomonas [the bacterium that causes cystic fibrosis pneumonia] … [in a biofilm can] survive in bottled iodine solution for up to 15 months.” Based on another study, Scientific American reported that harmful microbes suspended in a biofilm were still alive and well after 60 minutes exposure to bleach.

Stanford University researchers reported that the germ that causes cholera (Vibrio cholerae) forms a biofilm that enables it to survive in the presence of chlorine in concentrations 1000 to 2000% higher than that found in chlorinated drinking water. Washington DC’s water supply was compromised by biofilms in 1996 for this very reason.

Ironically, bacterial biofilms can even colonize biomedical products. Scientific American reports that in 1993, 100 asthmatics died because their inhalants contained Pseudomonas aeruginosa that had formed a biofilm in the tank involved in manufacturing the inhalant. In 1989, bacterium P. cepacia colonized inside of an iodine-based antiseptic solution, causing infections in a Texas children’s hospital.

Where else are biofilms likely to form and what can you do about them? Bacteria and other microbes require a damp surface to form a biofilm. In our mouths, the biofilm is called plaque. Biofilms are also often found in places such as inside water distribution pipes, in kitchens, and notably, under the rims of toilets and urinals.

According to researchers J. W. Costerton and Philip S. Stewart, writing in Scientific American Magazine: “bacterial biofilms are ubiquitous … the slippery coating on a rock in a stream, and the slime that inevitably materializes inside a flower vase after two or three days are but a few common examples.”

Weapons Against Biofilm

Obviously, just applying your favorite disinfectant (even full-strength) may not remove a biofilm colony. What’s needed?

Since the disinfecting or sanitizing agent must be able to access or get to the germs embedded in the biofilm “matrix” that makes up two-thirds of the biofilm, the matrix must be broken down before the germs are vulnerable. Therefore, one method is brushing or agitation of the surface.

Therefore, a bowl brush can be an important ‘disinfecting’ tool when used beneath the rim of toilet bowls and urinals. The biofilm must be physically broken up by the bowl brush before the flushing action of the toilet can remove the microbes.

A 25-year veteran in the housekeeping and cleaning industry, Allen Rathey began his career by establishing a home and commercial cleaning service in the early 1980s. After 10 years of first-hand experience, he transitioned from cleaning to consulting, providing advice and marketing services through his communications company, now InstructionLink/JanTrain, Inc. (ILJT). ILJT helps a wide range of cleaning industry organizations from start-up businesses to Fortune 500 companies, develop credible marketing messages, medical and scientific advisory boards, scientific communications and related outreach. The goal? Refine and validate products and processes to produce better and healthier indoor environments, then effectively deliver best practice information to the public.

Rathey's passion for educating the marketplace about the life-enhancing, health and other benefits of effective cleaning and housekeeping, prompted him to start The Housekeeping Channel in 2004. The Housekeeping Channel provides consumers with better, faster and healthier housekeeping tips and in-depth information. The Housekeeping Channel's portfolio of best practice advice comes from a range of leading professionals, including cleaning experts, professional executive housekeepers and professional cleaning services, scientists and doctors, environmental specialists and organizational and time-management consultants. More than 50,000 unique visitors go to the Housekeeping Channel each month, many spending more than an hour per visit.

Rathey is also the president of The Healthy House Institute, an online resource for a better, safer indoor environments.

Allen has been tapped as a housekeeping expert by The New York Times, U.S. News and World Report, BrandWeek Magazine, Real Simple, WebMD, and other national media. He has written articles for more than two-dozen international trade and consumer magazines.