Knowing the Unknowable: Measuring Cleanliness

By Amy Milshtein

  • Knowing the Unknowable: Measuring Cleanliness
Knowing the Unknowable: Measuring Cleanliness

Life is full of mysteries. What is love? Where is Amelia Earhart? Who thinks kale chips are a good idea? While debating these topics is fun, there’s a more important question from a public health perspective: Is that surface really clean?  Professionals and end-users alike typically use their senses to judge cleanliness. After all, if a surface looks spotless and smells fresh, then it is clean.


If only it was that easy. Dangerous pathogens are invisible, odor-free and thrive perfectly well on clean-looking and smelling surfaces. Fortunately, tools for measuring cleanliness give a definitive answer to a formally unknowable question.


Early Adopters

Certain sectors, like food processing, rely on hard quantitative data to ensure the safety and quality of their products. Old methods to provide that data required transporting samples to a lab and growing them an agar culture for 24 hours. In the last 20 years or so the industry has moved to ATP meters to assess factory conditions in real time. These meters detect the presence of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), an energy molecule present in all living cells. The user swabs a surface, inserts the swab into the meter and gets a readout in about 15 seconds. A high ATP number correlates to a high potential of microbial contamination and an unclean, unsafe facility.


A Shifting Standard

ISSA—The Worldwide Cleaning Industry Association recognizes the importance of objective data like this in measuring cleanliness. They have incorporated ATP testing limits in both their institutional and commercial cleaning standard as well as their K-12 standard. “The inclusion for ATP limits adds a quantitative to the determination,” according to their website. The ultimate goal is to ensure that buildings, be it a school, office or other facility, are in a condition that is clean, safe and healthy for users.


Measuring Success

The ISSA Clean Standard: K-12 was developed with research that included readings from thousands of ATP measurements. High-risk touchpoints commonly found in schools like student desks, cafeteria tables, restroom sinks and stalls and drinking fountains were assessed. Samples came from around the country to account for potential geographic or climatic variations. The results were used to create an acceptable ATP range for each surface.


The benefits of measuring cleanliness this way are far reaching. It’s reassuring to know, without a doubt, that a surface really is clean, considering that incomplete cleaning facilitates outbreaks, prolongs illness and compounds absenteeism. The technology also identifies products, equipment and protocols that work and ones that don’t. Lastly, having that scientifically-backed knowledge elevates the maintenance staff from janitors to professional partners who can answer one of life’s mysteries.  


Learn more about tools for measuring cleanliness by clicking here.  

Amy Milshtein

Amy Milshtein

Amy Milshtein covers design, facility management and business topics for a variety of trade publications and consumer magazines. 

Her work has won several awards, most recently a regional silver Azbee Award of Excellence.

She lives in Portland, OR with her family and Clyde, a 15-lb tabby cat. Once an avid hiker, these days she finds herself on the less-challenging -but-still-exciting 'creaky knees' trails.

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