PITTSFIELD — From Shaker Mountain to Mount Greylock, and Southern Berkshire to North Adams, schools are slowly opening their doors to teachers and students alike.
But, how can you be assured that the building is clean? Or that it's kept clean, and being monitored regularly for health, safety and the effectiveness of all that cleaning?
For 30 years, Eco-Genesis Corp. has been helping schools, businesses, and town and city halls make sure that their environs are healthy for working, learning and play. Never in modern experience has that been more essential than now, as the coronavirus pandemic enters its sixth month.
EGC, already known in the region for its environmental, and health and safety consulting expertise, has been in full swing for COVID-related consulting and cleaning evaluations since the pandemic began.
To explain what goes into making sure buildings are safe during COVID-19, Myron Ritrosky, founder of Eco-Genesis, and a Massachusetts licensed site professional (LSP) and certified industrial hygienist (CIH), recently sat down with The Eagle as part of its ongoing Ask the Experts series.
Q: School is about to start. Beyond COVID-19, are there issues with buildings that school districts and their maintenance staff should be aware of?
A: Yes, and they can be hidden. Two potential microbial hazards in buildings that have been closed for an extended period of time are mold and Legionella. The CDC recently released safety guidelines that help address mold and Legionella when reopening buildings.
Q: Mold is not a new issue. What in particular should school districts and their maintenance staff know about mold?
A: We know mold can cause or exacerbate a variety of health issues, so it is important to address mold in buildings. Mold will grow on building materials where there is excess moisture, whether produced from humidity, or leaks or condensation from roofs, windows, pipes or from flood events. Correcting the infiltration of excess moisture is always the first step. We recommend people turn to the Dampness and Mold Assessment Tool prepared for schools and general buildings by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. It is available on the CDC website and provides an easy to use step by step guide for getting on top of potential moisture and mold issues.
Q: Legionella is not as well-known. What should school districts and their maintenance staff be aware of?
A: For Legionella, we know that stagnant water in a building sitting in pipes at temperatures ranging from 70 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit can promote widespread Legionella growth. Even though Legionella is a water-borne bacteria, it poses a greater danger via inhalation once contaminated water becomes aerosolized. We recommend people refer to an easy-to-use CDC worksheet titled Worksheet to Identify Buildings at Increased Risk for Legionella Growth and Spread to help assess their building. There is also a free training video available through the Western Region Public Health Training Center at the University of Arizona and a Legionella Water Management Program toolkit that can help building owners.
Q: How can parents, teachers, students and administrators be assured that the cleaning and preparation has worked for school opening?
A: It's important to establish a Cleaning and Disinfection Program right from the beginning. This program should address the proper selection and combination of cleaning and disinfection products. Some cleaners and disinfectants can cancel each other out, erasing their effects. For example, disinfectants that use quaternary ammonium compounds, or Quats, as the active ingredients are very common and very popular. Likewise, many cleaners that are very common and very popular are what are referred to as anionic detergents. Separately, they work very well. Together, anionic detergents serve to inactivate Quats, thus reducing or eliminating their effectiveness as a disinfectant. By selecting the right combination of compatible products, you can be assured your cleaning team is working with the ideal set of chemicals to effectively clean and disinfect, while not unknowingly wasting time and money.
Q: How important is cleaning compared to disinfection?
A: The EPA is stressing cleaning in schools to reduce the bioburden on high-touch surfaces to minimize the opportunity for transmission. It also recommends ATP testing to document the cleaning's effectiveness. ATP testing looks for adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, an enzyme produced by all living organisms that measures cleanliness. The presence of a lot of ATP on surfaces means there's too much organic matter, and that means it hasn't been cleaned or cleaned adequately. We find most schools are relying on in-house, custodial staff who have been trained to clean for appearance alone. In today's environment, cleaning should be done to reduce bioburden, followed by disinfection to inactivate or kill pathogens.
Q: What else needs a close look as schools reopen?
A: Heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and cooling systems are a hot topic for schools right now. To help reduce the possible spread of the coronavirus, ASHRAE (an HVAC industry consensus group) recommends increasing ventilation to an exchange rate of 20 cubic feet per minute per occupant with as much fresh air as possible and to maximize air filtration.
Some schools have highly automated, computerized systems. They can tell you what's happening, where. Other schools might have outdated equipment, or equipment that has not been updated recently. Our team consists of a certified building commissioning professional, a certified industrial hygienist and an HVAC controls professional engineer to ensure we are providing a complete, well-rounded review based on available records, the existing equipment's design and capacity and the current data related to HVAC functioning. This allows us to provide recommendations on operation based on building occupancy.
Q: What needs to be done to make sure that learning environments continue to be safe?
A: Health and safety practices being implemented in schools and educational facilities across the board are not intended to be static, but rather the first step of a continuous assessment and improvement process. This goes for cleaning and disinfection programs, adjustments to HVAC systems and other measures. The cleaning and disinfection programs we put together for clients are intended to be living documents. We help schools establish best practices, chemical compatibility, program responsibilities, support and good communication, and help select alternatives if supplies for current products run out. We include checklists and forms to record what was cleaned, when, with which cleansers and disinfectants and by whom, as well as necessary training. The HVAC consulting we provide outlines steps to be taken to help meet ASHRAE recommendations, and verify airflow patterns in a building (before occupancy) and indirectly assess HVAC functioning (during occupancy). It's recommended these steps be reviewed regularly to find out how the programs are working. Our programs are designed to receive new information and be adjusted accordingly on an ongoing basis, according to a Plan-Do-Check-Act approach.
Q: You're affiliated with the American Industrial Hygiene Association and its Indoor Environmental Quality Committee. Why is this important in your work?
A: It has me at a small roundtable of experts, reviewing, evaluating and discussing the issues at a very high level, using all the latest information and guidelines available. It keeps me at the forefront of what's happening.