Albemarle school board weighs in on disinfection debate


The Albemarle school board discussed disinfectants at its July 10 meeting.
FILE PHOTO BY DAVE MCNAIR

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

That was the mantra of the Albemarle County school board July 10, as members voiced their support for continuing routine disinfection in schools with traditional synthetic chemicals. By backing disinfection, the school board countered a vote of the Board of Supervisors, who last month unanimously decided to switch to sanitizing– cleaning with greener products or simply soap and water– in all county buildings.

While following recommendations from both its health advisory panel and a joint school and local government committee, the school board's position did not sit well with the Sierra Club, including Toxics Committee member Jackie Lombardo.

"We're disappointed," says Lombardo, whose group has pushed for a switch to non-toxic green cleaners. They've cited various studies that show that even very low exposure to pesticides– disinfectants are classified as pesticides– over time has been linked to learning disabilities, cancer, and asthma in children.

One distinction between the chemical and green cleaners, Lombardo says, is how they kill germs.

Chemical disinfectants kill by poisoning the microorganism, while non-toxic cleaners– using thyme oil or hydrogen peroxide– kill by burning. A microorganism can build up immunity to being poisoned, Lombardo explains, which can lead to resistant superbugs that require ever stronger chemicals to be killed.

"If there's an issue in the future with MRSA," says Lombardo of the already drug-resistant and often fatal bacteria, "we don't want to create a super MRSA."

Lombardo says chemical cleaners also create problems through the chemicals they "offgas," or release through evaporation. Rubbing alcohol releases petroleum; bleach gives off chlorine gas. Hydrogen peroxide, meanwhile, releases oxygen.

"Which would you rather breathe?" Lombardo asks.

The chemical disinfectant currently used in schools is diluted down to a hazard material identification system rating of one, characterized as "slight hazard: irritation or minor reversible injury possible," according to OSHA's standards.

One local doctor says chemical disinfectants pose little or no threat to children.

"Routine use has not been associated with any issues I'm aware of," says Dr. Thomas Pajewski, a member of the school board's health advisory board.

He points out that disinfectants generally kill more germs than sanitizers, and it's important to clean high-touch areas as thoroughly as possible, even if these areas become re-contaminated after a single use.

"You need to start somewhere," he says. "The alternative is to let things accumulate."

While disinfection has been the most controversial part of the green effort, it's only one component of the overall green plan, which also includes pest management and grounds care.

The board is hesitant to embrace a green plan that exceeds state health and environmental requirements. That's thanks to another type of green– money.

"How much green can we afford?" asked school board chairman Brian Wheeler.

According to estimates from the joint committee, going green in the schools will cost between $72,669 and $100,430 more than the budget allows in fiscal year 2009, which vice-chair Diantha McKeel says is already a tight budget year.

The cost estimate, however, hasn't dissuaded the Sierra Club from pushing its green cleaning agenda.

"I hope finances don't lead the discussion when it comes to student health," Lombardo says.

The school board will not officially vote on the greener plan, but it does control the budget that would allow it to happen.

The board will meet August 14 to discuss a more thorough budget breakdown. While implementing the complete green plan may be deemed unfeasible, the board will also discuss implementing a green plan in phases.

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3 comments

The bit about bacteria becoming resistant to chemical disinfectants is a little misleading. Humans have been using bleach as a disinfectant (being poisoned) for more than a hundred years and no bacteria has developed any sort of resistance to it. Bleach doesn't poison bacteria, it obliterates it by oxidizing the cell membranes. This is why chlorine is used in pools - at low concentration it kills just about any kind of bacteria, and it does it right fast. Chlorine bleach and alcohol do not cause resistance because they are 100% lethal - if an organism is touched by the disinfectant, it dies. There are no survivors to mutate and develop a resistance.

As a retired teacher, I agree 100% with music lover! Oh, and FYI, never did I have one asthma attack or allergic reaction among the many hundreds of students who passed through my classrooms.

It would be nice to have a list of the studies being cited. I expect that both the people concerned about infection if bleach/alcohol based cleaners are abandoned and the people concerned that harsh cleaners, especially antibacterial cleaners, create treatment resistant infections want the best for the kids. This is the kind of question which can not be resolved by opinion- the school board needs the results of actual studies from people on both sides of this issue.
For what it is worth- it has been my experience in a preschool setting that using weak bleach on classroom tables seems to lead to fewer illnesses- but this is just anecdotal. Offgassing is obviously a part of spraying bleach based cleaners and who knows the health impacts? I don't see how the school board can make informed decisions without more facts.