Microbiologist Mom Addresses Daycare Disinfection

It’s a recurring dream:  I am dashing through the house in preparation for a work day that begins with dropping my children at daycare.  Finally, everyone’s dressed and ready to go and we pull out of the driveway only to return minutes later for my forgotten lecture notes, or more urgently, a treasured stuffed animal.

The kids are grown now, but I remember those hectic mornings and my concerns about their health as they joyfully greeted each new day, first crawling, then teetering and finally running among their peers at daycare.  Their little hands explored every possible daycare surface and made frequent trips to their mouths—81 times per hour for the “under two” crowd, according to one study.  Of course the children picked up many illnesses at daycare and generously shared them with their parents.  Sometimes it seemed the family was no sooner rid of one cold or stomach virus than we were falling victim to a new one.

As a mom and a microbiologist I know that while “germ-free” is neither an attainable nor appropriate goal, there are important measures that daycares can take to prevent the spread of illness.  For example a simple solution of ¼ cup of chlorine bleach in one gallon of water is an inexpensive disinfectant to apply to diaper-changing stations, where many serious germs lurk.  Hard toys, such as blocks and plastic rings, which children frequently mouth (especially as they teethe), can be disinfected using an even more dilute solution of chlorine bleach:  one tablespoon of bleach to one gallon of water.  The key to successful disinfection with these solutions is to first wash and dry the infected surfaces so that the disinfecting power of bleach is not depleted by reacting with residual grime and other organic matter.  To help communicate these simple but effective protocols to daycare staff, the Water Quality & Health Council has developed a series of downloadable posters for daycare environments.

A public health department official recently told me that chlorine bleach is falling out of favor as a disinfectant among some daycare providers because they consider it too harsh and environmentally harmful.  Perhaps it is time to remind folks that bleach solutions are recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and many states for daycare surface disinfection because they are extremely effective at destroying most germs, including flu viruses.  As the protocols on the posters indicate, used properly, it doesn’t take very much bleach to destroy the germs that run rampant in daycare.  Furthermore, as chlorine bleach kills germs, it degrades chemically into mostly salty water, so in fact it is environmentally friendly.  Naturally, it is absolutely essential that daycare staff handle chlorine bleach responsibly and keep it out of the reach of children.

According to the National Association of Child Care Resources & Referral Agencies, over 11 million US children under the age of five are currently in some form of daycare each week.  Whether you deliver your child to one of the 120,529 US “centers” or one of the far more numerous (238,226) family daycare homes, it should be a safe and nurturing place.  Why not download these posters and drop them off with your kids at daycare?  Remember, it is your child, not the germ du jour, who should be nurtured at daycare.

Joan Rose, PhD, is the Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research at Michigan State University and a member of the Water Quality and Health Council.