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Last updated: March 17, 2021

What Does Disinfectant Mean?

Disinfectants are any chemical agent that can be used to destroy microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Disinfectants can be contrasted with surfactants (such as soap), which are designed to remove substances from an area but which do not necessarily destroy the substances they are removing.

Depending on context, certain forms of radiation (such as heat or ultraviolet light) may be considered disinfectants.

Safeopedia Explains Disinfectant

Disinfectants are used as part of many sterilization and decontamination processes; however, disinfecting something does not equate to fully sterilizing it. The goal of a disinfectant is to eliminate harmful pathogens, while the goal of sterilization is to completely eliminate all living and foreign material from the sterilized area.

Selecting Disinfectants

Many different chemical agents can be used as disinfectants; however, no disinfectant is ideal for every type of job. For example, a disinfectant that is effective against bacteria may not be effective against fungi, and a disinfectant that is effective against one type of bacteria may not be effective against others.

Other considerations for choosing disinfectants include safety and reactivity. Highly reactive disinfectants may degrade or destroy certain surfaces or materials, or could react in a harmful manner if applied to a surface that has been contaminated with certain chemicals.

The safety of the disinfectant must also be considered separately from reactivity concerns. Disinfectants usually consist of toxic chemicals, and the most powerful disinfectants are also the most toxic to humans. This type of disinfectant is typically used in highly pathogenic environments, such as hospitals, where high levels of disinfection are necessary to prevent outbreaks of infectious diseases.

Disinfectants can be grouped into roughly three categories: Surface disinfectants, which are used on floors, furniture and equipment; garment disinfectants, which are used on clothing and personal protective equipment; and personal disinfectants, which are disinfectants that are safe to apply to human skin.

History of Disinfectants

The modern use of disinfectants as a tool to kill microorganisms dates back almost as far as the discovery of microorganisms themselves. The existence of microorganisms was discovered by Antonie Van Leuwenhook in 1675, and just one year later Van Leunwenhook would discover that vinegar could be used to kill them.

Disinfectants were not commonly used after this point, because it was still not widely understood that microorganisms were capable of causing disease; rather, most individuals believed that disease was caused by “miasma.” The role of pathogenic microorganisms did not become widely recognized until Louis Pasteur popularized the Germ Theory of Disease in 1861.

The popularization of Germ theory led quickly to the recognition that disinfectants could be used to prevent disease. After reading Pasteur's theory in 1864, the British surgeon Joseph Lister developed the first anti-sceptic—using carbolic acid—as a way to disinfect the area around a wound. The success of his results lead to widespread adoption of disinfecting methods in operating theatres; the use of disinfectants expanded from there, and they are now endemic to any space where pathogen-control is necessary.

Disinfectants in the Workplace

Occupational safety authorities require the use of disinfectants in settings that expose workers to pathogens. In ideal scenarios, a space will be fully disinfected before any workers enter. In many cases—such as when the source of a pathogen is a living patient—it is impossible to fully remove the infectious material from the work environment, and disinfecting efforts will need to focus on specific surfaces within the contaminated area.

If it is impossible to fully disinfect a work space, employers must provide workers with personal protective equipment (PPE) that creates a barrier between the worker and infectious material. After the employee is finished working, they may be required to undergo a post-work disinfection and decontamination procedure to ensure they do not inadvertently transmit workplace pathogens into the wider environment.

The most well-known occupational setting that makes use of disinfectants is within hospitals; however, every industry that works with potentially infectious human or animal fluids has legal requirements for disinfectants. In medical settings these requirements include OSHA’s bloodborne pathogen standard, while workplaces that have other sources of biohazardous infectious materials may be subject to their own industry-specific hazardous material requirements.

Because disinfectants are often toxic, their use may subject employers to additional chemical safety responsibilities. These chemical hazard requirements often include the mandatory use of PPE—such as goggles, respirators, and skin protection—as well as administrative policies that outline safe chemical handling requirements.

The onset of Covid-19 has made the use of disinfectants a more ubiquitous part of standard occupational health and safety practices. Numerous industries, such as the Meat and Poultry Processing Industry, have become subject to additional governmental health and safety guidance that extends an employer’s general duty obligations to include the use of disinfectants. Disinfectants now also form a standard part of non-industry specific OHS guidance in many jurisdictions.



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