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What’s the Difference Between Decontamination, Disinfection and All the Other Terms I Keep Hearing?

You hear it on the news every day – how important it is to protect yourself from COVID-19. There are conflicting reports as to how long the virus can last on surfaces and it ranges from just a few hours to several days. Because of this, disinfecting services have seen record breaking business to treat offices, businesses, residences, and more.

Unfortunately, the terminology that goes along with these products has started to get muddled and a bit confusing. Terms like disinfection, cleaning, decontamination, and sterilization all seem to be used interchangeably, but in reality, they all have different meanings and different purposes.

To help you have a better understanding of what each of these terms means, and when you may need to apply them to your situation, we’ve put together this handy guide:

  • Decontamination – This is a term that is fairly general in nature and can be applied to any type of process that reduces the contamination and pathogens in an area or on an object. This isn’t a precise term, but does require that the number of pathogens be reduced by a certain amount. Decontamination may be used in relation to pathogens, dirt, radiation, or other forms of contaminants. Processes used to decontaminate include things as simple as soap and water to sterilization with an autoclave. It can also mean that all forms of harmful sources have been neutralized.
  • Cleaning – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define cleaning as removing visible soil from surfaces and objects and usually involves the manual or mechanical use of water with enzymatic or detergent products. Soil does not necessarily refer to dirt, but rather any visible contaminant that can be left on a surface. The biggest distinction you need to understand between cleaning and other treatments is that cleaning doesn’t say anything about microorganisms or other contaminants invisible to the naked eye. This means that a surface may technically be clean to the naked eye, but still contaminated by bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. Because dirt and other organic matter can reduce the efficiency of sterilization and disinfection, cleaning is often used as a pre-treatment to these processes to make them more effective.
  • Sanitization – Sanitization, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency is the use of a device or chemical product to reduce the number of germs on objects and surfaces to a level that is considered safe by public health requirements and standards. This process is similar to cleaning in that it renders an area safer, but not necessarily safe. It is also often used as a pre-treatment for additional processing.
  • Disinfection – This term is defined by the FDA as destruction of microorganisms and other pathogens by chemical or physical means. It is a less lethal process than sterilization because it destroys most, but not necessarily all, microbial forms. Bacterial spores are a major point of distinction between sterilization and disinfection because disinfection cannot kill these spores. However, viruses don’t reproduce via spores which is why treatment for coronavirus has centered around disinfection.
  • Sterilization – Sterilization is a fairly straight forward term. It is the process where all microorganisms are destroyed, including bacterial spores. This is the gold standard for decontamination but can only be performed using a recognized sterilant and an approved procedure. Steam is generally the preferred method if it is compatible with the surface or object being sterilized.

Contact Us for Questions

If you have questions about what type of treatment you need for your office, business, or other facility, contact us today. We offer free estimates for our services.







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