WASHINGTON — With great fanfare, the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday gave emergency approval to a disinfectant it said would kill the coronavirus on surfaces for up to a week. Calling it “a major game-changing announcement,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the first to use the solution would be American Airlines and two sports clinics in Texas.
But health and chemical experts say the cleanser might actually harm passengers and flight attendants and do little to protect against the virus, which is mainly transmitted through the air in closed spaces.
“It would be great if this was a miracle solution, but it’s not,” said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “There’s plenty of risk here, and too much we don’t know about how this chemical could actually harm people.”
The disinfectant is SurfaceWise2, made by Dallas-based Allied BioScience, whose main business is an earlier version of the cleanser. Maha El-Sayed, chief science officer at Allied BioScience, said the product “binds to surfaces and kills viruses that land on it, including COVID-19.” The company said the protection offered by the product could last up to seven days.
But Sass said the company’s “Material Safety Data Sheet,” which lists the common hazards of a product, acknowledged concern about prolonged skin and eye contact, both possible in environments like the cabins of aircraft. The data sheet also does not list tests for chronic or long-term effects, she added. “Although acute toxicity seems to be very low, many people will be exposed to it on a daily basis,” including airline workers, Sass said.
The data sheet for SurfaceWise 2 also says that it is toxic to aquatic organisms. Sass noted that that was because it kills microbes — including beneficial ones.
Allied BioScience cautions that care should be taken to ensure its disinfectant doesn’t end up in drains and waterways but noted that SurfaceWise2 has “the lowest safety categorization,” or safest, available from the EPA.
“The product is electrostatically sprayed with an ultrafine mist, allowing it [to] dry within minutes, creating a polymer coating,” said Catherine Taylor of Snackbox, who is acting as the company’s spokeswoman. “The polymer coating is nontoxic, nonirritating, and non-sensitizing, and has been rigorously tested for safety — both in partnership with AA [American Airlines] and [the] EPA.”
American Airlines said the disinfectant was part of its “clean commitment,” but the carrier has also said for weeks that it was using other disinfectants that last up to seven days. Asked how soon passengers would be let on board after spraying, American said in an email that the product would be “completely dry” in 10 to 20 minutes. It added that there was “no need for special ventilation after the product has been applied.”
The Texas-based airline, which lost $2.1 billion in the second quarter, has been striving to lure travelers back to flying. Last week, however, it discontinued service to 15 markets as a result of low demand and the expiration of the requirements associated with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (Cares) Act. And on Tuesday, American Airlines said that as many as 19,000 job cuts would take effect once federal payroll assistance ends.
Public health experts did not provide the airline with any positive views on the new cleanser.
People most vulnerable to the coronavirus — those with asthma, chemical intolerances or certain allergies — may have greater irritation from exposure to the disinfectant, according to Claudia S. Miller, an immunologist, allergist and professor emeritus at the University of Texas.
SurfaceWise’s Material Safety Data Sheet labeled the percentages of the active ingredients “a trade secret.” But the document does share what the symptoms of exposure could be, including irritation, which could cause inflamed airways and increase risk of infection to viruses, Miller said.
“I’m very concerned when we’re using chemicals that may affect the more sensitive subset of the population,” she said. “I don’t like the idea of exposing people to disinfectants on top of this risk of having a virus infect their lungs.”
When the coating is sprayed, it emits vapors that could be hazardous, creating risks especially for the workers who apply it, Miller said. In a contained environment like an airplane, those vapors could linger without ventilation, she said.
The EPA said the product’s proposed label instructs users to wear personal protective equipment as well as long pants, shoes and socks. The airline said cleaning crews would also receive gloves resistant to chemicals and approved N95 or KN95 respirators.
Sass said that if the disinfectant remains potent enough to kill the virus, it could also affect passengers.
Experts say the chance of catching the virus from a surface is relatively small, because most transmission takes place via small droplets from an infected person that travel through the air.
“People want to get onto airlines and cruise ships,” Miller said, “but if the problem is largely exhalation, if they breathe out or cough, then everyone around them potentially is exposed. So you’ve only done part of the job if you clean the surfaces — not enough.”
Handwashing is just as important, according to research by a University of Arizona team.
Infection rates for viruses decreased by up to 50 percent when cleaning surfaces was paired with handwashing, according to one of the study’s co-authors, Amanda Wilson, an environmental health science researcher.
“Hand hygiene is also an extremely important part of the puzzle because if we’re disinfecting surfaces and not washing our hands, eventually we’re undoing some of the benefits of surface disinfection every time we’re contributing contamination to it,” she said in an interview.
Wilson said disinfecting surfaces should be paired with other practices to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus.
“If we’re disinfecting surfaces, we don’t want to have this false sense of security like ‘Oh, now I’m safe, now I don’t need to wear a mask or wash my hands,'” Wilson said. “All of these things are important in tandem.”