Antimicrobial Products vs. Sustainability

For decades, sustainability has been a key element of architectural design; since COVID-19 appeared, discussions around antimicrobial materials have surpassed sustainable products in popularity. But are they really the solution? 

Chart of how CORONAVIRUS lasts in surfaces. Text reads Paper and tissue paper = 3 hours. Copper = 4 hours. Cardboard = 24 hours. Wood = 2 days. Cloth = 2 days. Stainless steel = 2 - 3 days. Polypropylene plastic = 3 days. Glass = 4 days. Paper money = 4 days. Outside of surgical mask = 7 days. Source: New England Journal of Medicine

Understanding the lifespan of coronavirus on surfaces may not improve the way we design healthy work environments. However, it could guide us towards protocols that reduce transmission of the virus across surfaces. The use of organic and non-organic materials each have their pros and cons. Plastics, and other nonporous materials, keep organisms on the surface, allowing for easier transmission. Comparatively, naturally porous materials, such as wood, allow for organisms to pass through the surface and die. Unfortunately, porous materials may not survive against strong cleaning agents such as bleach. Antimicrobial materials are known to slow the growth rate of pathogens, but they do not eliminate them immediately and thus, require careful cleaning procedures to remove. 

Fig 2. Electrostatic Precipitation Cleaning 

This pandemic has architects turning to healthcare design as a way to understand how we may adapt its standards to create a healthy work environment. Some hospitals have banned antimicrobial materials as their harmful properties outweigh the benefits. From counter tops to door handles and other interior finishes, antimicrobial products are popping up across the market. Antimicrobial materials are designed to protect products from bacterial growth. However, these materials may also aid in the development of antimicrobial resistant organisms. Instead, it’s more likely that we do not need antimicrobial properties, but the ability to clean sustainable products with bleach.  

Sustainable architecture is determined by a building’s energy use, natural resources, and the impact it has on the environment and people’s health. Architectural products are often given an antimicrobial coating which has the potential to negatively impact the health of people and the environment. The use of antimicrobial materials provides a false sense of security and can cause “superbugs”. The chemicals used to create antimicrobial coatings can seep from materials, impacting indoor air quality. Instead, alternative solutions should be employed to maintain a healthy and sustainable workplace.

Fig 3. Task Lamps with UV-C light sterilizes surrounding area

Some alternate solutions to antimicrobial materials include UV-C light and proper cleaning methods. Pre-COVID-19, UV-C lights were commonly used to sterilize boxing mats. Today, their use has expanded as far as the sterilization of New York City’s public transportation system. When it comes to offices, UV-C lights can take many forms; each one requires taking proper safety precautions. One option includes placing task lamps on individual workstations to allow each to be sterilized overnight. Human exposure to UV rays of all wavelengths is a well-known and documented health hazard. Prior to incorporating UV lights into your space, consult with architects and engineers who are familiar with the ways to reduce these risks. As research around COVID-19 continues to develop we look to adapt work environments for a healthy and sustainable Post-COVID-19 world.

Article By: Caitlyn Flowers, Designer and Cora Visnick, Architect