With many North Texas students expected to head back into classrooms next month, the rush is on to get the buildings clean and sanitized before the first day of in-person classes.
One district, the Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD, is spending roughly $1.4 million on a cleaning company that has suggested its products may protect against the coronavirus on surfaces for 90 days. And the school district has marketed that 90-day protection to parents, as it re-assured them classrooms will be safe.
But does it work? Or is the school district selling parents a false sense of security?
NBC 5 Investigates
Uncover. Reveal. Expose.
The Environmental Protection Agency, the government agency which regulates cleaning products, told NBC 5 Investigates no product can claim to keep viruses like the coronavirus off surfaces for extended periods of time.
But in a presentation to the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school board in July, a local franchise of Germinator Mobile Sanitizing & Disinfecting suggested it’s “shield” product could keep school surfaces COVID-19 free for 90 days.
“As soon as that germ, as soon as that COVID 19, it doesn't matter what it is, whether it's bacteria, virus, fungus or mold, it kills it all. It attracts it to it”, said Germinator franchise VP Jeff Burnett, “It's a residual kill for 90 days. Where your disinfectants kill immediately, the shield continues killing.”
The district repeated the 90-day protection promise in facebook messages it posted regarding its COVID-19 safety plans, and in a YouTube video distributed to parents, featuring a Germinator representative.
"What we do is provide 90-day protection," the representative said in the video. "We're not just disinfecting where stuff comes back in and re-infects as soon as kids come in and start touching things. It keeps protecting that surface for 90 days.
To parent Kim Brady, who heads the PTA, the plan sounded reassuring.
"If it gives people peace of mind about sending their kids to school, then great. Money well spent," Brady said.
But, will any cleaning product keep COVID-19 away for 90 days? According to the EPA, the answer is no.
In a statement, the EPA told NBC 5 Investigates that the "EPA has no registered disinfectants that support long-lasting efficacy claims to be effective against (the coronavirus) SARS-CoV-2 for 90 days.'"
In fact, the EPA said it has not evaluated any products claiming to provide long-lasting protection against viruses.
So, we went back to the local Germinator franchise to ask again whether the product can prevent the coronavirus on surfaces for 90 days.
"Well, so I don't say it that way and I don't, I don't use those words," said franchise Vice President Jeff Burnett, who added that the "90 days" refers to the product label which says the shield should be re-applied every 90 days. He also said the company would continue come back to schools to re-test surfaces for germs, if needed, in the 90 day “protection plan” period after the product is applied.
When told the EPA said nobody can make the claim that a product works against the COVID-19 virus for 90 days, Burnett said his statements were based on independent lab studies that show that it does.
Germinator's corporate office in Georgia sent NBC 5 Investigates two independent laboratory studies, including a recent Belgian study showing the type of anti-microbial shield they use can fend off COVID-19. But the company's CEO told NBC 5 Investigates that the company is careful not to make any 90-day claims because the EPA won't allow it.
Germinator's corporate website said its shield product protects for an "extended period of time" but did not mention 90 days.
In a statement, Germinator CEO Jeff Gill said, "We make every effort to align all of our spoken/written communications with the EPA's language, however, we are confident that we are using the best products and science currently available to partner with our clients as they attempt to be proactive during this unprecedented crisis."
John Downey, director of the Cleaning Industry Research Institute, said "forget about the 90 days. That's just a made-up number. Really. It really is."
Downey's research group said anti-microbial shields can provide extended protection against germs, but it's not clear for how long and that surfaces still need to be cleaned each day. This is true even if a shield is applied because substances left smeared on the surface can block the germ-killing barrier.
Downey worries when parents and students hear of months-long protection, they may let their guard down.
"My biggest worry is as a cleaning industry organization, is that they'll get a false sense of security and then have something happen," Downey said.
When asked, district officials told NBC 5 they still believe they are getting three-month protection.
"Our understanding is that the current product, the 'Shield,' lasts up to 90 days and we are committed to being proactive and using the best currently available materials."
The district said it believes the independent research Germinator provided even if the EPA has not independently verified those claims.
NBC 5 Investigates repeatedly asked to interview Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD Superintendent John Chapman but the district did not make him available.
The school district’s $1.4M deal with The Germinator includes three treatments of all school buildings and 100 school buses, performed every 90-days.
For parent Kim Brady, 90-day protection or not, any extra cleaning measures seem better than nothing.
"I think the district's just trying to do what they can," Brady said. "I think they're trying to give everybody hope and a sense of security about it -- maybe a false sense of security -- but it's just really one measure that they're taking.”
The district said its cleaning staff will also continue to thoroughly clean surfaces regularly before and after the Germinator treatments.
After NBC 5 Investigates started asking questions, the school district put out a letter to parents describing the many layers of cleaning they will be doing in addition to the Germinator treatments. The letter did not repeat the 90-day claim.
*Map locations are approximate, central locations for the city and are not meant to indicate where actual infected people live.
**County totals below include all 32 North Texas counties, not just Collin, Dallas, Denton and Tarrant.