SF Environment institutes new screenings for safer disinfectants

April 22, 2021

San Francisco’s Department of the Environment has just made it easier to find safer disinfectants. This week the Department updated its “Safer Disinfectants for COVID-19” web tool to include an in-house hazard screening of disinfectant ingredients, while still highlighting products previously screened for safety by the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment (DfE) Program.

The Department created the web tool to fill an unmet need. Disinfectants are among the more hazardous cleaning products sold; most of common disinfectant products, for example, contain chemicals that can cause asthma. DfE is the only program that systematically reviews disinfectant ingredients for health and environmental impacts. Currently there are relatively few DfE registered disinfectants, especially for the consumer market. Recognizing the immediate demand for safer disinfectants, the Department created its own, simple hazard screening approach to assist consumers in selecting safer products.

The updated tool knits together data from the US Environmental Protection Agency “List N” of disinfectants approved for COVID-19 with product names data from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation databases. Our staff first researched product ingredients from manufacturers’ websites. A simple hazard screen was created to exclude any products containing ingredients known to cause cancer, reproductive or developmental toxicity, endocrine disruption, or asthma. Products carrying a “Danger” label from the US EPA, products sold only as aerosols, and products that are intended only for industrial use – for example, foggers for food processing facilities – were also excluded. Finally, products were excluded when manufacturers did not appear to comply with California’s Cleaning Product Right-to-Know Act (SB 258). While the Department’s hazard screening is less rigorous than DfE’s, it provides much-needed guidance until more DfE screenings are available.

It is important to acknowledge that disinfectants are often overused, and that a good cleaning is often sufficient to reduce germs on surfaces. In its COVID-19 guidance, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has again downgraded the importance of disinfecting surfaces, and recommends reserving disinfectant use “only for indoor community settings where there has been a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 within the last 24 hours.” In most cases, cleaning surfaces with soap or detergent is sufficient to reduce virus transmission, the CDC said.