How to sanitize your space from coronavirus, according to a biohazard cleanup expert

Jeremy Cumberford has seen it all.

After ten years running Kansas City’s largest biohazard and crime scene cleanup company, Crime Scene Cleaners, he’s witnessed the aftermath of tragedies and dealt with dangerous situations.

“We take care of homicides, suicides and what we call unattended deaths quite regularly,” Cumberford says. “That’s where somebody passed away and maybe hasn’t been discovered for a length of time whether it’s a couple of days or months. We also do hoarding cleanups, tear gas decontamination, and the occasional drug lab—though doesn’t happen very often anymore. We’ve always done infection control and now, of course, that involves the COVID.”

Since the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 started spreading, Cumberford’s company has been fielding calls from concerned people who need help cleaning their space after known exposure. So far Crime Scene Cleaners has cleaned more than a million square feet of space. That number could balloon further depending on what scientists and the CDC learn about the virus’s ability to live on surfaces.

“When something new happens, you just don’t know how it’s going to shake out,” he says. “HIV, for instance, can live outside the human body for about four hours. Hepatitis can live up to sixty days. So there’s such a broad range. At first, they were saying the SARS-coronavirus-2 was three days. Well, now they’re seeing results of 17 days. So everybody who thought they were safe by leaving the office for a few days—the tune has changed a little bit and we’re doing more preventative cleanings. A lot of clients or potential clients had thought ‘Oh, we’re just gonna let it sit and we’ll bring everybody back to work.”

How do those of us without a hazmat suit—and maybe not even a mask—clean our space? We asked Cumberford for his tips.

Start with high-touch surfaces—the places people put their hands the most frequently.

“If you’ve been at home there’s less potential for something to be there,” he says. “I’m not saying, ‘Don’t clean your house,’ but just start with normal pre-cleaning on all your high touch surfaces—light switches, doorknobs, countertops, anything that you touch on a regular basis. And then apply your disinfectants.”

Disinfection begins with cleaning.

You can’t disinfect something that’s not clean—which means you start by getting all dust, dirt, debris and the like off a surface.

“Disinfection happens on a microbial level,” Cumberford says. “All that really means to the normal person is if there is any sort of soil on a surface first, and you put disinfectant or sanitizer on it, it typically goes neutral because there’s too much biofilm and dust and debris.”

The trick, Cumberford says, is to remove the “biofilm” that develops on normal surfaces.

“This doesn’t mean the dust that you see with your eyes, necessarily,” he says. “There’s always a biofilm on surfaces and we have to break that and agitate that to get to the microbial level to properly disinfect a surface.”

Carefully read the label on your disinfectant.

All disinfectants, both sprays and wipes, have labels that state how long a surface has to be wet with the cleaner in order to be disinfected. This is known as the “dwell time,” and it can often be four minutes.

Most people don’t read these labels—but they should, according to Cumberford. If you wipe a surface down with disinfectant that has a five-minute dwell time and it’s dry two minutes later, it has not been disinfected.

“The biggest thing is that dwell time,” Cumberford says.

Liquid cleaners are better than wipes.

This is, again, because of dwell time.

“I would say spraying is typically better just because you have a better chance of keeping a surface wet for the dwell time,” he says. “It’s easy to just reapply.”

Gadgets like UV lights and foggers have their place but are no substitute for deep cleaning.

Any disinfection regime that does not remove the biofilm will not be effective in killing coronavirus, Cumberford says. Hospitals typically use UV lights as part of their sanitization strategy but also wipe down any area that could be infected. Likewise, foggers which spray disinfectant around large areas.

Crime Scene Cleaners uses ULV foggers—but not until they’ve cleaned.

“The problem with foggers is that they could be doing absolutely nothing,” he says. “It costs a lot less just to fog than it does to pre-clean everything and then fog, so a lot of people are going with the cheapest bid and not paying attention to the actual process that needs to be done. You need to remove the biofilm.”

Don’t wear clothes or shoes that could have been exposed to coronavirus into your home.

When you get home from a shopping trip, if you want to keep your living space sanitized you need to leave anything you wore outside the house or wash it.

“Personally, when I go home, I take my outer layers off and put them in the washroom,” Cumberford says. “My wife gets to do my laundry every day now. You can’t be cautious enough at this point. I don’t use scare tactics in our line of work, but this one is unique. It’s living longer than initially expected on surfaces. I don’t take my shoes out of the garage now. I take them off in the garage just because I’ve got three kids and a wife at home who need to stay safe.”

Be careful with gloves—if you wear one pair, you might consider two.

The issue with normal people wearing gloves out is that it makes it harder for them to wash their hands.

If someone wearing gloves in the grocery store touches a contaminated surface and then their wallet, they have just cross-contaminated things.

“It’s great to put on your gloves, grab your grocery carts, do your shopping—and then you need to take off your gloves,” he says. “Because when you once you touch your wallet, your phone and everything else after you’ve touched things in the store, there really is no difference between having gloves on and not having gloves on. If you touch your car door handles with the same gloves, you’re just cross-contaminating.”

For that reason, he recommends wearing two sets of gloves.

“In our normal biohazard remediation jobs, we usually have two layers of gloves on—we have our clean gloves underneath and those don’t ever touch anything contaminated,” he says. “Not to put people into a panic, but if you’re going to wear a glove, you might as well do it right. Or don’t and then make sure to wash your hands, like you should anyways.”

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