Responding Vs. Reacting

In January 2008, Infection Control Today published the results of an online survey asking facility managers and members of the professional cleaning industry their thoughts on a common culprit–restroom odors. What was most notable, according to the report, was how strongly some respondents felt about this issue.

For instance, when asked if an odor present in a public restroom made respondents feel more concerned about germs, bacteria and other health-threatening pathogens, nearly 85 percent said yes. They have a right to be. Many experts believe that odor is sensory evidence of biological/bacterial activity.

The survey also found that:

• 71 percent believe restroom odors are the result or a sign of improper cleaning.

• 81 percent believe that a fresh-smelling restroom, or at least one without a noticeable odor, is a sign of a well-maintained restroom.

• 66 percent indicated that an unpleasant restroom odor would deter them from returning to a restaurant or a store.

Although restaurants were at the top of the list as to where the respondents most encountered foul restroom odors, this was quickly followed by public places such as airports, sports arenas, convention centers and park and recreation centers.

Interestingly, although respondents almost overwhelmingly indicated a fresh-smelling or odor-free facility was a sign of a well-maintained restroom, they also indicated they had considerable reservations as to what it means when a restroom has a scent such as “pine,” often the result of a cleaning chemical or a fragrance system designed to add an aroma to a restroom. Fully 68 percent said pine or similar odor in a public restroom does not mean that the restroom is clean.

Off With The Masks

“Masking odors with a fresh scent will not fix a restroom-odor problem,” says Angelo Poneris, customer-service representative with Valley Janitorial, a distributorship in Hamilton, Ohio. “This is true whether the problem is in a home, office, school or park/recreation facility.”

Unfortunately, when there is a restroom-odor problem, adding a fragrance system is employed “too soon, long before managers and cleaning professionals take a serious look as to what is causing the odor problem,” adds Poneris.

Odor-controlling systems do serve a purpose and should not be discounted. In a busy facility, such as an airport or convention center, the systems are designed to keep restrooms as pleasant-smelling as possible between cleanings. Many are even specially designed for this purpose. They are engineered to release more aromas and fragrances when the restroom is busy and less when fewer people are using it.

However, if an odor problem exists, these systems do not help correct the problem, and can make it worse. “Restroom odors are invariably the result of bacteria building up on floors, in drains, on walls and fixtures, even on ceilings,” says Poneris. “Eventually, these areas have to be thoroughly cleaned, often using nontraditional cleaning methods, to fully rectify the problem.”

Causes And Conditions

Restroom odors typically build up over time. Even though a restroom looks clean, it can still have re-emerging and persistent odor problems. There are several reasons for this. First, looking clean does not necessarily mean a restroom is clean. Today, scientific systems, such as adenosine triphosphate (ATP), can almost instantly indicate if and where hidden pathogens are located on a surface.* If found, these can be the source of odors.

Additionally, odor problems can be amplified in warm temperatures and humid climates. The warmer and more humid the restroom, the more hospitable it is to bacteria, mold and mildew growth. An interesting example of this is urine, one of the big odor-causing complaints in restrooms.

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