Disclaimer: The "Nerd" is strong in this article.

Over the past several months, I’ve been learning a LOT about the Science side of what I do. I’ve concluded that there are two different “reasons” to clean. You can clean for appearance, or you can clean for health. As you might imagine, there are very different criteria associated with these, one of which is that cleaning for health has objective metrics associated with it, while cleaning for appearance does not.

So, let’s talk about what these two things mean. Recently, I’ve been asking a lot of people how they define what “clean” is. One of the best answers I’ve gotten was from a friend who said the best way he could describe it was to ask, “Would I sit there?”. This is definitely one way to look at it, but I also think that his visual analysis of any given surface is going to be somewhat subjective, right? Another person could look at the same surface, and come to a different decision than he, and say to themselves that they WOULD sit somewhere he wouldn’t, or that they WOULDN’T sit somewhere he would.

That’s what cleaning for appearance IS, at its core. It’s cleaning something to the visual satisfaction and standards of any given person. In my experience, Mrs. Figgledybottom is going to have very different standards for how the carpet and upholstery in her Preston Forest home are taken care of, as opposed to a college student who needs an invoice showing their apartment property manager that the carpets were professionally cleaned. Which one of these two people do you think is going to care more about how well the job is done?

So what is cleaning for health, then?

I think to understand; first, we have to define “cleaning” in a clear and precise manner.

In a book titled, Protecting the Built Environment: Cleaning For Health, Dr. Michael Berry defined cleaning as:

The process of extracting and removing unwanted matter to the greatest or optimum extent to reduce exposures to the unwanted matter and thereby eliminate or reduce the probability of adverse effects for humans, valuable materials, and the natural environment.”
Berry, Michael 1993
Protecting the Built Environment: Cleaning for Health.

That’s an awful lot of words, right? Though I have to say that it makes my heart glad to see this. Coming across the book I mentioned above has been a little bit like finding an ancient tome of deep magic at a yard sale (yes, I’m a gamer, and I generally play some kind of magic user…can you tell?). This is an actual objective definition of “cleaning.” If we begin with that, then we can start to establish an objective and actionable framework for cleaning processes that can be documented and verified by outside sources.

The next step is to establish benchmarks and metrics for the cleaning process or a way to define how much soiling is present before the cleaning. Then, after the cleaning, and this is where things begin to get interesting. I started my business in 2012, and remember reading about a method of using ultraviolet markers and lights in an attempt to ensure that hospital housekeeping staff were doing their job thoroughly. I found the concept very interesting. Here’s an article about a hospital making use of this method to help contain a C. diff outbreak that began in 2008.

Click Here To View The Article.

The general principle is to augment the visual inspection of cleaning processes. While the ultraviolet marker is a step in the right direction, in recent months, I’ve heard it described as a better indicator of whether cleaning was attempted, rather than as an indicator of cleaning efficacy. It has been determined that, even with an attempt to clean (and thereby disturbing/distorting the UV mark), that matter can still be left behind by the cleaning process that’s not visible to the naked eye. How do we know this, you might ask? Excuse me for a second. I need to go tape my glasses back together before I answer that…

Okay, now that I’ve gotten THAT out of the way, let’s talk about a substance called “ATP.”

It’s short for Adenosine TriPhosphate. Oddly enough, the same muscle-bound types that pointed and laughed while I taped my glasses back together are the only ones (aside from folks in the medical profession) that I’ve encountered in real life who know what ATP is (Dumb Jocks, you say? I think not…). ATP is present in ALL living biological material because it’s what the individual cells use to create energy.

You may find yourself thinking, “Why does that matter?” and the answer is because the presence of ATP is an indicator of biological material. Whether it’s skin cells or any number of various bacteria, IT IS POSSIBLE, OBJECTIVELY, TO DETERMINE LEVELS OF ATP ON ANY GIVEN SURFACE!!! This is important, y’all, and they’ve been using ATP testing in food and beverage processing plants for a LONG time to test and make sure that a surface is legitimately CLEAN. There are actual standards that say ATP levels have to be below a certain point for food to be processed on any given surface.

Over the past several months, as I’ve experimented with my ATP meter, I’ve found that a surface can LOOK clean and have RIDICULOUSLY high levels of ATP. I swab the surface before cleaning and record the number I get from the test. Then I clean the surface, and swab in the same place afterward, and record the number, and this data tells me two things. First, I can determine a legitimate cleaning efficacy percentage, or how much of the matter (both visible and invisible) I was able to remove. Second, I can tell if my cleaning processes managed to get these surfaces as clean as is necessary to not just eat off of, but even prepare food safely on.

Keep Calm, and Science On, folks.