Defining Clean

Examining ATP-monitoring devices 

By Robert Kravitz 

In a world where public-health scares are a frequent concern, it is time to consider whether the surfaces in facilities–and most specifically in restrooms–are hygienically clean. Until recently, this has been a difficult question to answer. While building managers might swab surfaces and use a Petri dish to test for potentially harmful germs and bacteria, this process could take days–days during which people could be infected by or come into contact with potentially harmful microorganisms. 

Other scientific methods to determine the presence of germs and bacteria on surfaces are available. But many of these also take a few days to produce results, and they can be costly and require a specially trained technician to perform the tests and then report the findings. 

Photos courtesy of Kaivac

Today there is a method for park and recreation managers to determine if restroom fixtures and surfaces in their facilities are hygienically clean and healthy. This technology–hand-held ATP monitoring–was introduced to the professional cleaning industry about five years ago. 

How ATP-Monitoring Systems Work

ATP stands for adenosine triphosphate, a molecule found in all living things, including plants, animals, bacteria, yeast, mold, etc. Finding ATP on a surface can indicate the presence of bacteria or pathogens that might cause cross-contamination and endanger human health. According to John Richter, Technical Director for Kaivac Inc. (a manufacturer of ATP-monitoring devices), while these devices are relatively new to the professional cleaning industry, they are not actually a new technology. 

ATP was first discovered over 80 years ago, and technologies were developed soon thereafter to test for its presence. “However … early ATP technology was often slow, complicated, and required the use of mainframe computers to produce results,” Richter explains. “That is no longer true today.” 

“The biological importance of ATP is now considered second only to DNA,” he continues. “When it comes to protecting human health, it has become a total game-changer for the professional cleaning industry, scientists working in laboratories, and even grocery stores that need to ensure that their refrigeration systems are hygienically clean.” 

The ATP-detecting systems most cleaning professionals now use are known as “hand-held rapid-monitoring devices.” Manufactured by several different companies, these systems are somewhat larger than a television remote control, and weigh about as much as one. They typically have a read-out display that makes test results available in 15 seconds or less. “Because results are available so quickly, and because these systems have become relatively inexpensive, ATP monitoring has become a prominent player in the cleaning industry in recent years,” Richter says. 

However, just because ATP is found on a surface–for instance, a counter top–it does not necessarily indicate the presence of harmful pathogens. Instead, these findings should be interpreted as a warning that, at the very least, more thorough cleaning may be needed to make the surface safe for human contact. 

Looking Clean Is No Longer Enough

How might ATP monitoring prove beneficial in a park and recreation location? Consider the following example. About 10 years ago, 113 surfaces were evaluated over a two-week period in hospitals located in the U.S.and the U.K. The surfaces were cleaned using conventional cleaning tools–mops, buckets, sprayers, cloths, etc. The surfaces were then visibly inspected, and researchers agreed the surfaces did, indeed, look clean. 

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