by Allison Hester
Just two weeks ago, as COVID-19 was just barely entering several states, a number of industry members started offering free – or sometimes paid – washings of playground equipment. “What a great idea!” we initially thought. “Good for you!”
Now people are getting ticked off all over Facebook industry groups on whether or not it’s the right thing to do.
“It’s giving people a false sense of security!”
“You’re just doing it for attention.”
“You’re going to get the kids sick!”
My point of writing is not to say whether washing playground equipment is a good thing or not. My point is that if you’re going to do it, do it right. Here are some questions that need to be considered:
Q. Do Playgrounds Need to be Cleaned?
A. Heck yeah.
In fact, a 2018 Home Advisor study found that high-traffic areas on playgrounds have 9-million colony-forming units (CFUs) per square inch. To put it in perspective, playgrounds have over 52,000 more nasty bacteria on them than your toilet seat at home. Do people encourage their kids to play around the toilet? Of course not. But playgrounds are much, much worse.
Another 2004 study found that outdoor port-a-potties are a whole lot cleaner than playground equipment. Kids are spreading their nasty little germs in all kinds of gross ways, and, without going into details, from all orifices in their bodies. (*Blech.*)
So yes, coronavirus or not, playgrounds should be cleaned. It’s just taken COVID-19 to get a lot of contractors to provide the free service.
Q. Does cleaning playgrounds really help protect against COVID-19?
A. Possibly, kinda sorta.
Let’s look at what we know. In the CDC’s COVID-19 recommendations for disinfecting hard surfaces, they endorse cleaning surfaces first (which pressure washing will do), then disinfecting using bleach. (YESSSSS!) The recommended amount is 1/3 cup per gallon of household bleach. It needs to be sprayed on the surface and left to air dry.
Of course, the professional-grade bleach used by our industry is much stronger than that. So, in theory, spraying bleach on playground equipment is disinfecting it. (More on terms in the next question.)
The problem is not in whether you are cleaning and disinfecting the playground equipment. The problem is that the equipment is only protected until the next infected kid plays on the equipment, or an infected adult coughs and the virus lands on the surface. However, if there was a virus on the surface at the time of your cleaning, you most likely killed it – along with the thousands of other germs that were already there.
Q. Should I say I’m cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting, or what?
A. It’s complicated.
“Cleaning:” Yes. You are absolutely cleaning the surface. And remember, the CDC says that you should clean surfaces before disinfecting – so what you’re doing is very important!
As for “sanitizing” or “disinfecting?” It’s probably best not to actually say you are “sanitizing” or “disinfecting.”
When in doubt, I like to look at definitions. The CDC and EPA have different definitions for both sanitizers and disinfectants. Both are important though. Let’s take a look:
The CDC says that “sanitizing lowers the number of germs on surfaces or objects to a safe level, as judged by public health standards or requirements. This process works by either cleaning or disinfecting surfaces or objects to lower the risk of spreading infection.”
According to the EPA’s definition, however, sanitizers are “a substance, or mixture of substances, that reduces the bacteria population in the inanimate environment by significant numbers, but does not destroy or eliminate all bacteria.”
Important note: COVID-19 is not a bacteria! It’s a virus.
The CDC refers to disinfecting as “using chemicals to kill germs on surfaces. This process does not necessarily clean dirty surfaces or remove germs, but by killing germs on a surface after cleaning, it can further lower the risk of spreading infection.”
However, the EPA definition gets more specific for disinfectants: “a substance or mixture of substances, that destroys or irreversibly inactivates bacteria, fungi, and viruses, but not necessarily bacterial spores, in the inanimate environment.”
So, according to these definitions, sanitizing reduces germs, disinfecting kills the germs. Seems like sanitizing would be safer to use, right? The problem is that the EPA says sanitizing is for bacteria. Disinfecting is needed for killing viruses like COVID-19.
When it comes to COVID-19, the CDC is telling people to “disinfect” (i.e., kill the virus), and one of the main ways to do this is using bleach, an approved disinfectant.
Still, there are some legal issues with saying you’re “disinfecting.” What if you miss a spot? What if you don’t let the bleach dwell long enough? In other words, what if you don’t kill all the virus germs?
My suggestion is to say that you are “cleaning” the playgrounds “using CDC and EPA-approved disinfectants.”
Q. Isn’t cleaning a playground giving people a false sense that it’s safe?
A. It depends.
If you tell people it’s now safe for children to play on a public playground without fear of contracting the virus, then yes. Otherwise, no – at least in my opinion. (Cleaning a family’s private playground equipment should be safe as long as no one else is allowed to use it and no one in the family contracts the virus.)
If you clean bird crap off a slide, it’s clean until another bird poops on it. Right? You’re not protecting it from the next bird that decides that slide would make a good toilet.
Same with COVID-19. It’s clean until someone with the virus touches it. No one with any common sense thinks that a shopping cart that was sprayed down with Lysol before the grocery store opened is going to still be germ free at the end of the day. That’s why they have to be cleaned and disinfected daily, and why we wipe them down ourselves when we first get to the store.
If parents haven’t been doing their own research, or if they decide to cross the “do not enter” yellow tape now surrounding many playgrounds so their kids can play, that’s not your fault. You cleaned it using CDC and EPA-approved disinfectants. You did your job.
Q. Won’t the sun just kill the virus on playgrounds anyway?
A. No. (Or at least that’s what the scientists are saying.)
So far, neither the CDC nor the World Health Organization (WHO) have said that the sun is a way to kill the virus. High-intensity UV lights can kill the virus, but those are much stronger than what we receive through normal sunlight. Experts say that you have to have a temperature of 140+ F degrees to kill a virus.
Plus, when it comes to the virus, if you “stick it where the sun don’t shine” – i.e., the body – then the sun can’t kill it. (I just wanted and excuse to use that phrase.)
Remember, you’re not just killing the virus. You’re cleaning the playground equipment too, which is very important and will make future use of disinfectants work better.
Q. Should I contact the media? Won’t people just think I’m doing this as a marketing ploy?
A. ARE you just doing it just as a marketing ploy? And if so, is that necessarily bad?
Are you providing your community with a thoughtful, free service? Will people be upset because there’s something positive in the news and it happens to involve your company? Will the people who watch or read the story think “Wow, what a horrible company. They’re cleaning playground equipment for free. I’ll never hire them!”
If you are uncomfortable getting publicity for doing something nice, then don’t contact the media. If you are comfortable or if you are hoping to get some good publicity, contact the media.
And hey, your window of opportunity may be rapidly closing to do this! Cities are catching on and sending out their own crews to clean playgrounds daily. If you want to get in on the good vibes, you need to stop waiting around and get out there!
Q. How do I let the media know I’m cleaning playgrounds for free?
A. It’s easier than you may think.
First, you need to have plans actually laid out for when and where you’re going to be cleaning.
Next, contact the media. You have a couple of options here. You can do it the traditional way, which involves writing a press release and sending it out to all the media organizations in your area. The other option, and the one I honestly would recommend, is you pick up the phone (or send an email). If you look at the individual news stations and newspapers in your area, their websites usually tell you how to let them know about potential stories.
Next, your phone call or email can be similar. Basically, just call (or write), ask to speak to someone on the news team, and say (or write) something like this: “I’m so-and-so from such-and-such exterior cleaning. In the midst of the current COVID-19 situation, I wanted to do something nice for our community, so I’m volunteering to clean the (fill-in-the-blank) playground. I have the proper professional equipment, personal protective equipment, and will be using CDC and EPA approved disinfectants and methods. It’s just our way of giving back. Is it something you’d potentially like to do a story on? We will be at (fill-in-the-blank) playground at (date, time) if you’d like to come out and do a talk to us or take some photos/videos.”
If you email or leave a voice message, know that they may not get back to you, but they very well may just show up at the date and time you tell them. So make sure you’re there and dressed appropriately. Company shirt, PPE. I would recommend practicing what you’re going to say – which is essentially the same thing you said in your message above.
Oh, and take some pictures while you’re out there. You can post them on your social media, and you can also send them to your local newspaper. (Note that you may need to upload to a site and then include a link to where they can find the images. Some media outlets aren’t allowed to open attachments.) Sometimes papers will have a spot to fill, and a photo is a quick, easy option for them to use.
If you are interviewed by the media, be professional, be honest, and be prepared.
Finally, just know that even if you are interviewed, they may not use the story. There’s a limited amount of time or space to fill, and not every story gets reported. It’s just the way it is.