EPA on Disinfectants

Antimicrobial pesticides are substances or mixtures of substances used to destroy or suppress the growth of harmful microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, or fungi on inanimate objects and surfaces. Antimicrobial products contain about 275 different active ingredients and are marketed in several formulations: sprays, liquids, concentrated powders, and gases. Today, approximately one billion dollars each year are spent on a variety of different types of antimicrobial products. More than 5,000 antimicrobial products are currently registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and sold in the marketplace. Nearly 60% of antimicrobial products are registered to control infectious microorganisms in hospitals and other health care environments.

Antimicrobial pesticides have two major uses:

1) Disinfect, sanitize, reduce, or mitigate growth or development of microbiological organisms;

2) Protect inanimate objects (for example floors and walls), industrial processes or systems, surfaces, water, or other chemical substances from contamination, fouling, or deterioration caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa, algae, or slime.

This category does not include certain pesticides intended for food use but does encompass pesticides with a wide array of other uses. For example, antimicrobial pesticides act as preserving agents in paints, metalworking fluids, wood supports, and many other products to prevent their deterioration.


Some examples of antimicrobial pesticide chemicals can be found in the Antimicrobial Chemical Indexes, which are available on the EPA Pesticide Web site at http://www.epa.gov/oppad001/chemregindex.htm.

Types of Antimicrobial Products

Antimicrobial products are divided into two categories based on the type of microbial pest against which the product works:

  • Non-public health products are used to control growth of algae, odor-causing bacteria, bacteria which cause spoilage, deterioration or fouling of materials and microorganisms infectious only to animals. This general category includes products used in cooling towers, jet fuel, paints, and treatments for textile and paper products.
  • Public health products are intended to control microorganisms infectious to humans in any inanimate environment.

The more commonly used public health antimicrobial products include the following:

  • Sterilizers (Sporicides) – Used to destroy or eliminate all forms of microbial life including fungi, viruses, and all forms of bacteria and their spores. Spores are considered to be the most difficult form of microorganism to destroy. Therefore, EPA considers the term Sporicide to be synonymous with “Sterilizer.” Sterilization is critical to infection control and is widely used in hospitals on medical and surgical instruments and equipment. Types of sterilizers include steam under pressure (autoclaving), dry heat ovens, low temperature gas (ethylene oxide), and liquid chemical sterilants. Gaseous and dry heat sterilizers are used primarily for sterilization of medical instruments. Liquid sterilants are primarily used for delicate instruments which cannot withstand high temperature and gases.
  • Disinfectants – Used on hard inanimate surfaces and objects to destroy or irreversibly inactivate infectious fungi and bacteria but not necessarily their spores. Disinfectant products are divided into two major types: hospital and general use. Hospital type disinfectants are the most critical to infection control and are used on medical and dental instruments, floors, walls, bed linens, toilet seats, and other surfaces. General disinfectants are the major source of products used in households, swimming pools, and water purifiers.
  • Sanitizers – Used to reduce, but not necessarily eliminate, microorganisms from the inanimate environment to levels considered safe as determined by public health codes or regulations. Sanitizers include food contact and non-food contact products. Sanitizing rinses for surfaces such as dishes and cooking utensils, as well as equipment and utensils found in dairies, food-processing plants, and eating and drinking establishments comprise the food contact Sanitizers. These products are important because they are used on sites where consumable food products are placed and stored. Non-food contact surface sanitizers include carpet sanitizers, air sanitizers, laundry additives, and in-tank toilet bowl sanitizers.
  • Antiseptics and Germicides – Used to prevent inflection and decay by inhibiting the growth of microorganisms. Because these products are used in or on living humans or animals, they are considered drugs and are thus approved and regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The mission of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is to protect human health and the environment. Since 1970, the EPA has been working for a cleaner, healthier environment for the American people. At laboratories located throughout the nation, the agency works to assess environmental conditions and to identify, understand and solve current and future environmental problems.