A Grand Rapids-based startup is applying sanitization techniques long used in the food processing industry to a broader range of facilities in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces.
Safe Science, a new facility health service that launched in May with experts from major national food companies, combines advanced sanitization techniques with direct communications that inform property owners or employers when facilities are safe to use.
Though research is growing about COVID-19’s primarily airborne transmission, workers and the general public still seek assurances about clean, disinfected facilities.
“We saw a gap in the market where people were turning to basically janitorial services or sometimes building remediation services,” said Safe Science General Manager Jeremy Lehman. “They didn’t have the scientific basis or grounding for what they were doing.”
Lehman said the 16-employee company formed a team with former food chemists at Kellogg Co. and Sara Lee Corp., to name a few, who are also state-licensed sanitarians. According to the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, Michigan has 294 licensed sanitarians.
The company has amassed about 40 customers since launching in May, including several restaurants around Grand Rapids, assisted living facilities and commercial properties.
Safe Science uses a “triple sanitizing protocol” to help stop the spread of COVID-19, while the company’s scientists have experience remediating other pathogens like listeria, e. coli and norovirus.
“The techniques have been used for years at these sophisticated food processors,” Lehman said. “That’s an industry that’s had to face these challenges forever.”
The process uses a combination of biomisting and electrostatic fogging to attack high-touch surfaces. Next, the company uses ultraviolet light called pulsed xenon. Unlike decades-old UV technology, pulsed xenon is “a lot more intense and replicates a broader range of sun radiation,” Lehman said.
Studies have shown pulsed xenon to be effective at deactivating viruses and bacteria and can complement other sanitization efforts. The Metropolitan Transit Authority is piloting the UV technology to disinfect subways and buses in New York City, while the Gerald R. Ford International Airport announced recently that it’s testing various UV light devices to disinfect items during the traveler screening process. Safe Science uses the same technology from Colorado-based Puro Lighting as is being used in the New York City study.
Safe Science’s three-step process of misting, chlorine-based cleaning solutions and UV light “complement each other and are really lethal” to the virus, Lehman said. The process is completed with a mobile app that provides traceability and results to building owners, which benefits companies like assisted living facilities that are subject to audits, Lehman added. The company can also test facilities for the presence of COVID-19.
While disinfecting can remove the virus from surfaces and offer a sense of security, health experts maintain that social distancing and mask-wearing are most effective at stopping COVID-19 transmission.
“With droplet transmission, we are mostly concerned about person-to-person transmission,” said Nicki Britten, health officer with the Berrien County Health Department.
While “surfaces do play a role” if people touch a contaminated area and make contact with their eyes or mouth, she added, timing is also important.
As of early August, Lehman said the company was working on proposals with school districts. Under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Return to School Roadmap, districts that opt for in-person instruction this fall must follow a variety of sanitation protocols, including regular cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces, devices and school buses.
“We really need to be focused on person-to-person transmission,” Britten said. “We do need to do cleaning, but sometimes it doesn’t align in a way that’s meaningful. If someone hasn’t been in a facility in a week, there’s probably limited value in doing cleaning at that point. Some of it is happening to help demonstrate that a workplace, employer or business is trying to make every effort they can to make people feel safe. Sometimes from a PR standpoint it’s what organizations need to do, but really it’s about social distancing.”
Lehman responded that “you still have to kill (the virus) wherever it is,” and he doesn’t see disinfecting and social distancing as binary options. Also, while offices and schools are similarly organized and “tend to be a little safer, the food service component raises risk. That’s where we tackle it hard on that side of the equation,” he said.
Shortly after being allowed to reopen for dine-in service in June, SpeakEZ Lounge in Grand Rapids contracted with Safe Science to perform deep cleaning the restaurant couldn’t do in house. The company comes in for a couple of hours while the restaurant is closed to do a more thorough disinfecting that the restaurant can’t do while operating, explained SpeakEZ Partner and General Manager Calin Skidmore.
“We’re working really hard in house on just surface sanitization and spraying down high-contact surfaces, but during regular service, we can’t do a full-on deep clean,” Skidmore said. “They’re able to come in and do a full fogging and sanitization that gets pretty much every square inch of the place in a more detailed way than we’re able to.”
Skidmore said Safe Science comes in roughly every other week. The restaurant has mentioned the deep cleaning on social media and with signs in the restaurant, he added.
“We’ve all certainly learned a lot more about disinfecting and sanitizing over the past six months than we knew previously,” Skidmore said. “Everyone’s more sensitive to it these days. It makes sense businesses like Safe Science are out there to provide services that maybe even six months ago people didn’t think they needed or thought were a luxury.”
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