Effective Cleaning Defined

What is effective cleaning?

Effective cleaning removes unwanted matter to the greatest or optimum extent possible. This reduces the likelihood of an adverse effect caused by unwanted matter exposure to man, valuable materials and the natural environment.


Effective cleaning is characterized by the following factors, which ensure the environment is fully protected.  

  • Maximizing the measurable amount of pollutant removal from the building envelope and sanitizing interior surfaces
  • Minimizing cleaning-derived chemical, particle and moisture residue
  • Cleaning for health first and appearance second
  • Recognizing connectedness and clean to improve the measurable quality of the total environment
  • Providing for safety
  • Preventing pollution and minimizing waste and
  • Properly disposing of cleaning wastes

What can be done to maximize the amount of pollutants removed from the building envelope and to sanitize interior surfaces?

Cleaning reduces exposure to unwanted substances. It also reduces the probability of an unwanted effect, such as risk. This effect is visible in response to a human, animal or plant or damage to a valuable material. A discussion of indoor pollutant exposure risk begins by presuming we are exposed to heavily loaded compartments. A clean indoor compartment does not pose a public health risk.


Many substances found in dusts are considered allergens. This classification includes substances with the greatest potential to be reintrained to air. The greater the loading the more likely it is that entrainment will occur.


Particles >10 µm cause the most allergic reactions. These large particles irritate the cranial cavity’s mucus membrane. The pulmonary system’s natural defense mechanism usually clears particles >10 µm from the lungs.


Common airborne allergens are pollen; fungi, such as molds and yeasts; household dust containing assorted spores; food particles; plant and insect parts; dust mites and their waste products; animal dander and saliva from household pets; tobacco smoke; and various organic chemicals in the gas phase.


An allergen is any substance that causes a hypersensitive reaction. A healthy individual’s immune system prevents most allergic reactions. After a significant exposure to a particular allergen those who develop an allergy become sensitized to that allergen. Sensitization is when the specific antibody for the allergen attaches to the mast cells’ surface. This causes the individual to react to future exposures. Those subsequent exposures release agents that interact with surrounding tissue.


Respiratory allergies are triggered when an airborne allergen reaches the mucus membranes lining the inside of the cranial cavity. Allergic reactions include sneezing, nasal congestion, wheezing, coughing, post nasal drip, itchy, watery eyes, nose and throat, dark circles under the eyes and conjunctivitis. In rare but severe cases, reactions may include lightheadedness, rapid pulse, difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, hives, swollen lips, tongue and throat, drowsiness, confusion or loss of consciousness.


These health effects generally are not life threatening. They do, however, detract from an overall sense of well-being and often interfere with office and school productivity.


The principle, “It’s the dose that makes the poison” is important in understanding allergen responses. A sufficiently high dose of allergen spores are needed to create an effect. Periodic vacuuming maintains concentrations of larger size allergens at levels less likely to cause reactions.


Some low to moderate risk of adverse response is associated with the direct contact (dermal and subsequent ingestion) associated with pesticides, heavy metals, bacteria and mycotoxins. Cleaning greatly reduces these risks.


The following practices are effective in reducing health risks, especially in sensitive environments, such as schools and nursing homes.


  • Sanitize tables, counters, lavatories, water fountains, light switches, keyboards and phones daily.
  • Equip cleaning personnel with state-of-the-art vacuums for removing particles. Use vacuum bags with good collection efficiencies.
  • Clean all building carpets with high temperature hot water extraction. Follow up with rapid drying through improved ventilation or with fans.
  • Use a damp cloth for routine dust collection. Dispose of cloths or launder them frequently.
  • Use a damp dust mop for hard surface floors. Avoid cross contamination by replacing or washing often.
  • Equip cleaning staff with special wet-process cleaning machines to immediately clean after accidents.
  • Exercise universal precautions for blood or human wastes.

How can cleaning-derived chemical, particle and moisture residue be minimized?

Every process, including cleaning, creates a level of diseconomy and waste. Cleaning strives to secure waste in a suitable location without leaving unwanted matter or excessive residue in the environment. Commonly, chemicals and water are unwanted by-products of cleaning operations. Without effective removal, a cleaning process actually is polluting.


Rinsing is mandatory when using cleaning chemicals. Avoid biological growth by rapidly drying wet surfaces and materials. Do so with improved ventilation and, in some cases, fans. This is particularly true for carpet cleaning, water spills or other water damage. Dry cleaning powders, such as those used on widespread surfaces like carpet, leave significant amounts of particulate matter that can be reintrained to indoor air.[i]


Many volatile organic compound (VOC)-based cleaning agents can be replaced with water-based solutions. Extracting chemicals, particles and moisture residue improves when more efficient equipment and cleaning systems are used.


Should cleaning be for health first or appearance?

Cleaning’s primary objective is guarding the health of the occupants. Cleaning programs should be designed and implemented with this in mind. Effective cleaning creates a healthy condition by reducing exposures and risks. It enables sanitation, breaks the transmission chain of infectious agents and prevents illness. Cleaning should complement, not replace, basic hygiene practices, such as frequent hand washing, disinfecting surfaces, disposing waste, effectively managing communicable diseases and adhering to universal precautions. In the interest of health use effective disinfectants regardless of their bleaching effect on fabrics.


Cleaning’s non-health benefits also should be recognized and valued.


The cleaning process:


  • protects valuable materials and equipment
  • maintains property value
  • encourages topophilia or “love of place”
  • accents aesthetics
  • promotes human dignity
  • sends caring messages
  • instills a sense of ownership
  • projects a professional image
  • enhances productivity
  • prevents crises
  • reduces the full range of property and real estate costs
  • manages wastes and
  • contributes to environmental protection and sustainability

Does cleaning improve the total environment?

From a scientific perspective, the indoor environment—like the outdoors—is a system of connected compartments through which matter and energy flow. In this system, matter and energy are never destroyed. They merely move around. A compartment or sub-compartment is a place that contains matter. Major indoor environment sub-compartments include flooring, indoor air quality (IAQ) and elevated surfaces, such as walls, shelves, furniture, ceilings and HVAC. Objects or places found within these sub-compartments are themselves sub-compartments. Compartments are connected and influence each other in terms of transferring matter. Depending on the compartmental matter load and environmental conditions, such as convection and natural ventilation, unwanted matter is continuously transferred between compartments. Depending on how effectively the compartments are cleaned either the intended purpose is achieved or unintended environmental conditions or hazards are created.


Cleaning frequency and intensity should be proportionate to the activity level in the various parts of the building and its use. Clean and balance the ventilation system to improve the building’s air quality and circulation. Proper food management and storage in the building must be guaranteed. Identify and repair water damaged building areas quickly.


How is safety provided?

Cleaning is known to have a high incidence of mishaps.[ii] That is why the cleaner and the building’s occupants must be protected from cleaning-related accidents. Common injuries and accidents are to back and body because of lifting and operating equipment; slips and falls; electrical shocks; cuts from sharp objects; chemical burns, reactions and poisonings; respiratory illness (mainly asthma); increased allergic reactions and rates of infectious disease. Accident rates associated with a well designed cleaning system and training program are considerably lower than those of less managed systems.[iii]


For the building occupant’s health and safety cleaning should be done in unoccupied environments. Even the most well designed cleaning program emits allergens into the air. Remove all physical hazards, especially those related to slips, falls and electrical shock. Keep toxic cleaning materials away from adults and children. Follow universal precautions to treat blood borne pathogens separately from other managed building wastes.


How can pollution be prevented and waste minimized?

We live in an age of environmental concern.[iv] Protected environments increasingly are a measure of efficiency and concern for their environmental value. High performance organizations have good reasons to prevent and minimize waste. Their objectives are reducing liability, saving money and lowering costs. As the population and marketplace grow, the natural environment’s assimilating capacity decreases and the demand for energy and materials increases. Materials and energy continue to cost more because supply is lower and consumer demand for a clean environment is higher. There also is less space in the environment in which to dispose wastes.


The majority of solid wastes end up in landfills with a large portion being collected and processed through cleaning programs.[v] The cost of waste management is increasing due to regulatory requirements for more technically advanced and expensive landfills, incinerators and waste disposal systems. Hazardous wastes create even higher costs. Insurance costs to business also are higher because of increased risks associated with accidents and improper transport and disposal.[vi]


Much of the wastes flowing through cleaning programs can be lowered by preventing pollution, reducing waste and recycling instead of disposing. Currently, the challenge is identifying the positive and realistic role cleaning programs play in reducing waste generation while saving money. Reducing waste reduces cost. Well managed organizations recognize this and use waste minimization to measure their operation’s efficiency.


Reduce energy and labor costs by preventing conditions from developing. For example, placing walk-off mats at all entrances traps pollutants before they enter and yields lower cleaning costs. Mats are inexpensive and should be cleaned or replaced frequently. Use quality filters in vacuums to achieve a maximum extraction and reduce exposure during cleaning. Clean up accidents involving body fluids immediately to avoid liability and medical costs. Follow universal precautions when doing so.


The recent green cleaning movement promotes the idea that only nontoxic cleaning agents should be used. Unfortunately, green cleaning has evolved from a well-intended waste reduction concept to, in many instances, meaningless or misleading advertising. It tends to be an exercise in chemical substitution not meaningful environmental protection.


In fact, any chemical in concentrated form or improperly used is toxic and harms the environment. The chemical itself and how it is used and managed is what makes it environmentally unsuitable. Prevent adverse consequences of chemical use in cleaning by training maintenance and cleaning staff to properly use and apply chemicals. In regard to cleaning, the term “green” should be replaced by “high performance.”


High performance cleaning — by virtue of its quality-based philosophy and waste reduction construction — is environmentally protective. Green best relates to preventing pollution and reducing wastes. All high performance cleaning programs should commend and practice this. Concurrently, however, cleaning’s purpose is to create a healthy environment by putting unwanted matter, such as pollution and waste, in its proper place.


What is the proper method of disposing cleaning wastes?

It is particularly important that the nature of wastes and their proper disposal be understood. Liquid or solid wastes are “hazardous” if they are corrosive, reactive (produce a violent chemical reaction) or toxic. When hazardous and non-hazardous wastes are mixed the combined wastes are hazardous. Cleaning wastes should be disposed of in a sewage treatment or solid waste management system.


Under federal law household and institutional cleaning wastes are exempt from being hazardous. Some local governments, however, may not view them this way. Those participating in cleaning operations must be aware of the legal requirements before becoming involved in hazardous waste management. Human or biological wastes must be managed separately.


Different cleaning processes reduce exposure in varying degrees. Regardless of the process used, the primary benefits are incurred only when pollutants are removed and exposure reduced.

Michael D. Berry, Ph.D., was chairman of the Science Advisory Council for the Cleaning Industry Research Institute (CIRI) in 2006. The information contained in this article was extracted from Dr. Berry’s papers and presentations at CIRI’s 2007 Cleaning Science Conference and Symposium. His entire paper and Power Point presentation, as well as those of other symposium presenters, are available at www.ciri-research.org.

Published with permission by the Cleaning Industry Research Institute © 20

[i] United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) (2007). Indoor Air Quality Monitoring in Carpeted Environments. Research Triangle Park, NC.
[ii] Wolkoff, P. et al. (1998). Risk in Cleaning: Chemical and Physical Exposure. The Science of the Total Environment, 215, 135-156.

[iii] University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) (2006, October 1). (OS1) Evaluation Committee Report on the Comparison of (OS1) and Zone Cleaning.

[iv] Berry, M.A. & Rondinelli, D. (1998, October 1). The New Industrial Revolution. Financial Times (London, GB), Mastering Management Review, 17, 32-35.
[v] USEPA, Indoor Air.
[vi] Kolluru, R.V. (1994). Environmental Strategies Handbook — A Guide to Effective Policies and Practices. New York: McGraw Hill.  

Michael A. Berry, PhD serves on the Science Advisory Council of the Cleaning Industry Research Institute (CIRI).


Dr. Michael A. Berry retired from the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1998 after a 28 year career with that agency. In EPA he was a senior manager and scientist. He was the Deputy Director of National Center for Environmental Assessment at Research Triangle Park, NC for 22 years. During his EPA career, he had extensive interactions with private industry, trade associations, environmental organizations, governments, the federal courts, US Congress, universities world-wide, and institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Dr Berry is recognized internationally as an expert in the subject of indoor environmental quality. Between 1985 and 1994, he directed EPA's indoor air research program.

Since his retirement from EPA he has been a Research Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he taught several course and wrote numerous articles related to business and environment, built environments, and environmental science and management. He serves as a consultant to businesses and public institutions in the evaluation of environmental management strategies and policy. He directs research on the performance of products and services related to indoor environmental quality. Currently his research focus is the area of cleaning science and indoor environmental management programs for schools and universities.

Dr. Berry served as an Army Officer in Viet Nam 1967-68. He earned a Doctor of Philosophy in Public Health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a Master of Science in Management from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. He holds both Bachelor and Master of Science degrees in Mathematics from Gonzaga University.