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Are Disinfectants Harmful to the Environment?

The Effects of Disinfectants on the Environment

A person spraying disinfectant wearing PPE kit

Coronavirus does not seem to leave us soon. Pandemic is affecting every part of human life – economy, social life, work-life, and what not? Medical experts and the government are trying at their level best, but the virus has already caused a rampage.

Disinfecting, sterilizing, vaccination processes are being done in every possible way but according to a recent report from WHO (World Health Organization), it has warned that the excessive use of disinfection is affecting the environment a lot, and the most surprising thing is that excess use of disinfectants is not effective for killing coronavirus. So, what is the point of such practices?

Since the start of the pandemic, it has been supposed that viruses can be present on open surfaces of the material, and when any human touches the surface, he or she can come in contact with the virus. Yet, this is not medically proven, many countries have started disinfecting streets, office buildings, schools, colleges, hospitals, and every public place. The practice has also given some positive effects. It is important to understand that excess disinfection can be harmful to human life as well as plants and animals.

What can be termed as a Disinfectant?

Disinfectants are the chemical substances that are used to kill or inactivate every kind of life present on inert surfaces. Unlike sterilization, it is not a 100 percent effective process. Most of the disinfectants used in household chores are not harmful, but one used in hospitals or at public places is harmful to humans, animals, and even plants.

Major chemicals used in disinfectants are chlorine and chlorinated compounds, aldehydes, alcohols, oxidizing agents, peroxo and peroxy acid, phenolics, quaternary ammonium compounds, and phenols.

How does Disinfectant affect the Environment?

Effects on Humans

The effect of the disinfectants on the environment varies upon the chemical composition. For example, spraying chlorine and chlorinated disinfectant can irritate the eyes as well as the skin. It can also cause gastrointestinal injuries.

Disinfectants can also cause psychological effects alongside the physical effects on humans. Few symptoms and side effects when you come in contact with disinfectants are asthma, headache, nausea, etc.


Disinfectants cannot be effective in areas with high pollution rates. Moreover, the effect of disinfectant reduces in the dirty and muddy area. So, disinfection in such areas has practically no effect and instead contributes to the local pollution of the area.

Effects on Animals and Plants

According to NCBI, excessive use of disinfectants can affect urban wildlife. Some of the above-mentioned chemicals are harmful to animals also. For example, phenols are harmful to cats and dogs.

According to National Geographic, 135 animals and birds from 17 species of wildlife died in China due to the excessive spraying of disinfectants in the environment. Many disinfectants can inhibit the growth of plants and affect their fertilization process.

  1. You must be wondering if excessive use of disinfectants is causing such trouble, then why are they employed? If they are effective, then how to disinfect the surroundings?
  2. Spraying disinfectants at appropriate levels give the desired results. Surely, it is not the case that disinfectants are fully ineffective. It demands certain guidelines and some processes to be followed to achieve the goal of 100 percent effectiveness.

Pre-disinfecting guidelines that must be followed

Follow these guidelines strictly for the safety of humans as well as the environment.

  1. There are different kinds of disinfectants for different purposes. So, know the surface and purpose of disinfection very well, and then choose the proper disinfectant.
  2. Clean the surface with water before disinfecting the surface. As the disinfectants are usually inactive on dirty and muddy surfaces.
  3. Disinfectants need proper time to do their work. Don't spray and immediately wipe it off or dry it. If you do so, then your money, energy, and time will be wasted, as no effects of disinfection are achieved.
  4. Ensure that the spraying staff is well secured with the required PPE - such as hand gloves, face masks or respirators, face shields, and protection goggles.
  5. Check the efficiency and working of disinfecting machines, also known as fogger machines.
  6. Never mix cleaning and disinfecting chemicals, it can produce toxic gases that can cause various respiratory tract diseases and can even be fatal.
  7. Open the doors and windows and turn on exhaust fans if indoor disinfection is being employed.
  8. Ensure that there is no human presence in the area except the working person (wearing the PPE).
  9. The last one is - Training, yes, it is extremely important to train staff for 100 percent efficient disinfection and safety. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is impossible to completely stop disinfection, but we can apply some effective strategies. To stop and restrict the environmental loss, we need to apply several strategies while disinfecting, such that the process of disinfection will be achieved with the desired results and minimal environmental losses.

Strategies to minimize environmental loss

1. Determine ‘How, When, and Where’ to disinfect

  • How:

Many modern technologies are now being used in the process of disinfection. Try to minimize human resources for this activity. The use of drones and robots is already in practice by several nations.            

  • When:

The best time to disinfect the outdoor area is at night when there is no crowd on streets and public places. Also, you can inhibit entry to a particular area for a day or two. For indoor disinfection, the best time for disinfection depends upon the individual.

  • Where:

Do not disinfect near plants, water resources, agricultural areas, grassy areas, gardens, and nurseries. Also, if you have pets at home then restrict their movement near the places of disinfection. Follow the guidelines and precautions that ensure the minimum possible environmental losses.

Man disinfecting the area using a disinfectant spray

2. Replace the conventional method

For indoor disinfection, spraying the disinfectant can be replaced by wiping the surfaces with disinfectants, so that the droplets will not remain in the environment. Wet the cloth with disinfectant and wipe the surface.

If the above-mentioned strategies are applied on a large scale, then surely it will reduce the environmental effects of disinfectants. Intense research is urgently required. If we could find disinfectants that attack only viruses and harmful bacteria, and not the environmental entities such as humans, plants, and water resources, the situation can be beneficial. 

It should be a collective movement to save the environment we live in so that every small effort can be counted as a big step. 

Key Takeaway Points:

  1. Disinfectants may contain harmful chemicals.
  2. WHO has recently warned to reduce the excessive use of disinfectants as it is causing harm to the environmental entities - birds, animals, and humans.
  3. Instead of killing viruses and bacteria, improper disinfection techniques can cause environmental damage.
  4. Disinfectants need time to work, it is not an instant process.
  5. We can minimize environmental loss through collective efforts.

Few Worthy Words:

We often hear the government is not responsible, the government has failed to stop the COVID-19 pandemic. But think once who is the government? Is it only a single person? Or a group of people that include you as an individual too, right? So, don't you think it is time to stand collectively for the sake of our safety? 

And the biggest favor we can do to ourselves is following every guideline presented by the government to save ourselves and our loved ones. You can spend more time with your family and you can also acquire new skills, or you can build strong relationships in this free time. It is harder to implement than to write, yet try it once, and do let us know your experiences!

Stay True! Stay Healthy!