Disinfectants in the Healthcare Industry

Disinfectants have been used throughout the history of mankind on the earth in one form or another.

As far back as 865 AD, Ethanol was discovered by the Iranian chemist Rasis, and was used as a disinfectant in the 1700’s by the French for dressing wounds.

The 1700’s saw numerous other advancements in disinfectants, a Swedish chemist discovered the element Chlorine and began studying it’s disinfectant properties. Not far behind this discovery, a US Navy Pharmacopeia identified the disinfectant properties of Vinegar. At the same time, the French chemist, Berthollet, discovered hypochlorite’s and by 1800, Issac-Benedict Provost demonstrated that copper salts prevented the germination of spores.

The 1800’s brought discoveries and advancement we still see in use today. Heat was introduced as a way to allow for canning & sterilization and preservation of foods. Iodine was discovered and began to be used for sterilizing wounds. Hydrogen Peroxide was noted for its ability to eliminate foul odors (bacteria) and in 1832 Phenol was discovered by the German chemist Reichenbach. Finally in 1916 Quats were being report and by 1932 they had come into commercial use.

Many of these discovered elements form the base disinfectants (in varying molecular structures) still being used today to take advantage of their disinfectant capabilities. The problem for scientists over the years has been to develop these items in a useful format. The stronger the disinfectant, the more toxic it becomes. The safer the disinfectant, the less effective it becomes.

After World War II, more and more disinfectants and pesticides were being used, and negative environmental effects were being realized. The world began to demand products that would be safer to human use, and the environment as a whole. In addition, it was noted that microorganisms can develop resistance against some Quats, Pseudomonas, Chlorohexidine, pine oil, etc. A new change was needed in disinfectants.

A new generation of disinfectants was born. Mixtures of different elements and chemicals were created such as quat-alcohols and phenol-alcohols. The advantage of these products was a broader spectrum of antimicrobial activity. The disadvantage was that they were still toxic and corrosive in nature and posed a potential harm to humans or the environment.

Back to the drawing board for scientists to identify and develop a product that could reach the standards being set. The result over the last couple of decades has been Oxidizing chemicals such as Hydrogen Peroxide, PAA (peroxyacetic acid…used in the food industry) and AHP (Accelerated Hydrogen Peroxide). The advantages of these products is that they have a broad spectrum activity and do not develop antimicrobial resistance in microorganisms. The have a faster “kill time” than the earlier disinfectants. They are also readily biodegradable and break down to oxygen and water. As a result, there is no remaining chemical residue left behind. The balance with disadvantages is that these items can be corrosive to soft metals.

EPA Disinfectant Chart


About the Author:

Rock Jensen, Senior Consultant, has been engaged in hospital environmental services, patient transport, laundry, food, grounds, communication, safety, security, and facilities management since the mid- 1990s.