Disinfection services mushroom across Kerala as people rush to make their homes ‘COVID-19-free’

People recovering from COVID-19 look toward sanitisation of their homes to feel safe, despite doubts on efficacy of spraying disinfectants and fumigation in stopping the spread of the infection

When Anju Kushan’s husband, Kushan Prakashan, VFX and animation expert, recovered from COVID-19 in October 2020, she remembered something she had heard in the film Virus.

“Fumigation — they mention how it works against the virus. It stuck in my mind. When both Kushan, and his brother Lavan, recovered we got it done at our homes and office,” says the Kochi-based film subtitler. At the time there were few agencies in Kochi offering the service; they turned to Peepal Oxycare, a Kochi-based company that supplies oxygen concentrators, nebulisers, ventilators and similar equipment.

“Sanitisation and disinfection are not our core area. We have a small hand-held machine, with a capacity of 300 ml used for fumigation, which we rent out to people we know personally. We recently acquired a larger machine — 200-litre capacity — to fumigate larger spaces such as malls and schools. There has been a surge in enquiries for and companies offering fumigation and sanitisation services,” says Peepal manager, Manoj R.

With COVID-19 patients quarantining at home, there is a rising demand for sanitisation and disinfection services. , Several companies offering these services have mushroomed in Kerala over the last year. Services include sanitisation of rooms, surfaces, bedlinen, curtains and clothes worn by the patients.

The process of fumigation involves releasing a fumigant gas in a sealed environment for a fixed period of time, after which it is ventilated so that none of the gas remains. Chemicals such as hydrogen peroxide silver nitrate are used for the process, usually done to kill pests and harmful micro-organisms. Cleaning and disinfection protocols of the World Health Organization (WHO), Central and Kerala State Governments do not recommend this, yet people have been getting their homes fumigated post-Covid.

“After my husband and I recovered, we wanted to sanitise the house for the sake of my son and mother-in-law who tested negative and also for any visitor to the house, so that they don’t feel unsafe when they come over,” says Athira Diljith, a public relations professional. The couple home quarantined after they tested positive, and a week after they turned negative, they got their house and surroundings fumigated.

She hired the services of Nirved Sanitizing Services, North Paravur on the outskirts of Kochi. A four-wheeler mechanic, Mruthul Shine started the agency during the lockdown last year after he lost his job in West Asia and returned home. . “I had been planning a cleaning service, then the lockdown happened and a demand arose for post-COVID-19 sanitisation/disinfection services,” he says. He works with his wife and has been getting eight to 10 calls daily, some directed through the local ASHA workers.

But is fumigation necessary?

The World Health Organization (WHO) website identifies ‘high touch’ surfaces (also known as ‘touchpoints’) in non-healthcare settings such as the door and window handles, kitchen and food preparation areas, counter-tops, and railings as priority disinfection points in order to prevent virus contamination. Rather than spraying, it recommends wiping down surfaces with disinfectants from the cleanest to the most soiled areas.

Cleaning and disinfection protocols recommend ‘wet mopping’ and suggest avoiding aerosols. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website states that while ‘it is possible for people to be infected through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects (fomites), but the risk is generally considered to be low’, pegging the figure at ‘less than a 1-in-10,000 chance of causing an infection’.

However, people like Anju and Athira say they feel safer after fumigation.

“Fumigation and wet-fogging are not recommended but in some cases it is unavoidable like when trying to sanitise vehicles. In rooms there are nooks and corners you cannot get to. The key then is to be careful and ventilate the space before entering it,” says Jinraj Kothoor, of Protect and Disinfect INC in Kochi. Enquiries have been coming his way through ward councillors.

Last year, Kothoor’s company voluntarily disinfected Kochi’s public spaces such as the KSRTC bus stand and railway stations upon approval from the Health Department. Launched during the pandemic, the company works primarily with banks and now, residences.

“Usually we are called to disinfect the room the patient has quarantined in. Then, it invariably extends to the entire house and sometimes, even the exterior,” says Nirmal SS of Wype, a deep-cleaning and disinfection company based in Kozhikode. Nirmal, who used to work in the housekeeping department of a hotel chain, started the company with a few friends during the lockdown.

“A demand for sanitisation services presented itself and we gave it a shot. We work with hotels too; the process is more or less the same. The surfaces and space are different,” he says. The company has been getting 10-20 inquiries daily.

Demand from patients home-quarantining

Jino V Manohar, who runs Autowhite, a mobile car wash and cleaning services company in Thiruvananthapuram, says the situation this year is different. “During the first wave, our services were required to disinfect or fumigate office buildings, shops and business establishments. This year, we have been getting more calls from homes with patients opting for home quarantine,” he says. Jino provides free service to economically backward families.

Rates are calculated per square-foot area, ranging from 75 paise per square-feet to ₹3.5 per square-foot. It takes around 30 minutes to an hour to disinfect a 1,200 sq ft house, after which ‘touchpoints’ are wiped with a sanitiser solution. The staff is either dressed in PPE kits or wear gloves, masks and boots. Jino’s customers sponsor PPE kits for his staff.

Since these services are comparatively new, there are few regulations, and the field is wide open. Rates vary from firm to firm and there are organisations that do cleaning and disinfection for free. But the flip side is that customers could be taken for a ride by some firms.

WHO prescribes that ‘in non-healthcare settings, sodium hypochlorite (bleach/chlorine) may be used at a recommended concentration of 0.1% or 1,000 ppm (1 part of 5% strength household bleach to 49 parts of water) and alcohol at 70-90% can also be used for surface disinfection’.

Most of the agencies claim they adhere to WHO guidelines but the lack of experience in handling the chemical solutions could be harmful. For instance, indiscriminate spraying of bleaching powder solution could damage home appliances and furnishings.

Juby Benoy of Smart Clean Services points out that it is important to use the right solution and proper machines to carry out the cleaning and disinfection. She adds thatpeople often opt for deep cleaning as they would not have cleaned the house properly for days. While we have a fixed rate of ₹4,500 for spaces up to 4,000 sq ft, we give a discount for those who can’t afford the amount,” she says.

Despite the business, the entrepreneurs admit that they cannot wait for things to go back to normal. “The revenue has gone up but I would prefer to stick to what we used to do — car wash and cleaning services. Even though we take all precautions and use safety gear while at work, there is an underlying fear,” Jino says.

There is a cost for the workers. As we speak, a few of Kothoor’s employees have tested positive for COVID-19. “It is an occupational hazard,” he says.

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