Maintenance and Operations, Sustainability/Business Continuity

A Pill for Every Ill and the Precautionary Principle with Facility Cleaning

In the 1950s, benzodiazepine drugs were first introduced by pharmaceutical manufacturers. These drugs were found to treat a wide range of problems, including anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, muscle spasms, nervous tics, even ringing in the ears, better known as tinnitus.

By the 1960s, the most famous of all the “benzos,” as they were called, was introduced. Valium quickly became one of the most popular drugs of the 1960s and 1970s. Not only did patients love them, but doctors did as well. When patients came to their offices with indeterminate illnesses, many doctors believed the best thing they should do was to prescribe a medication, nonetheless, and that go-to medication was Valium.

While there were some concerns about the long-term effects of Valium, these were overlooked because, well, the drug was easy to prescribe and inexpensive, it made people feel good, and it did treat a variety of ailments. But soon, concerns began to mount. 

You see, Valium, and most of the other benzos, are made of chemical compounds similar to the addictive compounds found in heroin. When it made headlines that Valium had significant addictive drawbacks, doctors stopped prescribing the pill, resulting in millions of people experiencing—almost overnight—withdrawal symptoms. Some people could no longer work, relationships and marriages came apart, and some patients were left with permanent effects such as memory loss.

This overprescribing of Valium is an example of what is commonly referred to as the “precautionary principle.” The term was developed in the 1970s. While it does have different definitions—including some legal definitions—it typically applies to products that are introduced whose long-term effects are little known or, if they are known, overlooked. This is especially true for products used to address an immediate problem or an emergency or crisis.

Lead in Paint

An example closer to home for many facility managers is lead in paint. The use of lead in paint dates back to the 4th Century BC. It was added because it helped paint better adhere to surfaces, allowed for more pigments to be developed, and helped the paint last longer. Instead of repainting walls every two or three years, repainting could be stretched to every four or more years when lead was added to the formulation.

However, concerns about lead in paint date back to 1786 when Benjamin Franklin warned an artist friend about the hazards of lead in paint. Even Sherwin-Williams, one of the world’s oldest and largest paint manufacturers, noted in its July 1904 monthly publication that a French expert had determined lead paint is “poisonous in large degree both for workmen and for the inhabitants of a house painted with lead colors.”

But even with these warnings, it would take more than 80 years before one country after another started banning lead, not only in paint but for other uses as well. Once again, we see the precautionary principle at work. We knew there were problems with lead in paint. Even one of the largest paint manufacturers in the world knew it 120 years ago. However, this was overlooked. Instead, we focused on the more immediate benefits of lead paint.

The Precautionary Principle and Cleaning

For more than two decades, the professional cleaning industry has been marching to a “green” beat. Today’s cleaning solutions are manufactured following standards and guidelines that ensure they will be green certified by a leading green certification agency. Similarly, cleaning equipment and products and cleaning methods have been introduced that have a reduced impact on health and the environment, which is what green cleaning is all about.

But that green march came to a halt in the first quarter of 2020. Facility managers that had long abandoned powerful disinfectants or only used them where and when necessary were soon using them to clean every nook and cranny once the pandemic hit. As many managers know, disinfectants and sanitizers are classified as pesticides in the U.S. and are regulated by the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) in the United States. The EPA administers and regulates FIFRA. 

They are classified as pesticides because they are designed to kill living things, even if those living things are bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Overused, they can prove harmful for the user, building users, and the environment. However, this precaution was overlooked due to the panic caused by the pandemic.

Something else that was overlooked was the use of foggers that coat surfaces with disinfectant residue, which is designed to stay on those surfaces for 60 to 90 days. 

While this certainly sounded like a good idea during the pandemic, concerns are now mounting that the long-lasting disinfecting residue can be harmful, especially if it is touched repeatedly by children or seniors. Once again, precautions were tossed out the window.

Addressing the Precautionary Principle Head-on

With facilities reopening around the country, many facility managers are now taking stock of the cleaning supplies selected during the pandemic and wondering if they should still be used now that the pandemic has ebbed. Why coat surfaces with long-lasting disinfectants, for instance, if there is a possibility that the long-term effects of this disinfecting method could prove harmful down the road? This could even open the door to legal and liability issues for facility managers.

Evaluating these cleaning solutions and selecting new solutions to replace them is a complicated process. It needs an expert. Facility managers are advised not to “go it alone.” An astute janitorial distributor will be well aware of what products are needed in a post-pandemic era to keep us safe and healthy both now and for the long term.

The precautionary principle urges us to be careful. Using certain products during an emergency is one thing. But continuing to use them after that emergency has passed can prove detrimental on several fronts.

Michael Wilson is Vice President of Marketing and Packaging for AFFLINK, a distributor-based company specializing in marketing packaging, cleaning products, and technologies that improve building efficiencies as well as help protect human health and safety.