1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Disinfectants

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DISINFECTANTS, substances employed to neutralize the action of pathogenic organisms, and prevent the spread of contagious or infectious disease. The efficiency of any disinfectant is due to its power of destroying, or of rendering inert, specific poisons or disease germs. Therefore antiseptic substances generally are to this extent disinfectants. So also the deodorizers, which act by oxidizing or otherwise changing the chemical constitution of volatile substances disseminated in the air, or which prevent noxious exhalations from organic substances, are in virtue of these properties effective disinfectants in certain diseases. A knowledge of the value of disinfectants, and the use of some of the most valuable agents, can be traced to very remote times; and much of the Levitical law of cleansing, as well as the origin of numerous heathen ceremonial practices, are clearly based on a perception of the value of disinfection. The means of disinfection, and the substances employed, are very numerous, as are the classes and conditions of disease and contagion they are designed to meet. Nature, in the oxidizing influence of freely circulating atmospheric air, in the purifying effect of water, and in the powerful deodorizing properties of common earth, has provided the most potent ever-present and acting disinfecting media. Of the artificial disinfectants employed or available three classes may be recognized:—1st, volatile or vaporizable substances, which attack impurities in the air; 2nd, chemical agents, for acting on the diseased body or on the infectious discharges therefrom; and 3rd, the physical agencies of heat and cold. In some of these cases the destruction of the contagium is effected by the formation of new chemical compounds, by oxidation, deoxidation or other reaction, and in others the conditions favourable to life are removed or life is destroyed by high temperature. Among the first class, aerial or gaseous disinfectants, formic aldehyde has of late years taken foremost place. The vapour is a powerful disinfectant and deodorant, and for the surface disinfection of rooms, fulfils all requirements when used in sufficient amount. It acts more rapidly than equal quantities of sulphurous acid, and it does not affect colours. It is non-poisonous, though irritating to the eyes and throat. With the exception of iron and steel it does not attack metals. It can be obtained in paraform tabloids, and with a specially constructed spirit lamp disinfection can be carried out by any one. Twenty tabloids must be employed for every 1000 cubic ft. of space. Disinfection by sulphurous acid fumes is of great antiquity, and is still in very general use; for the purpose of destroying vermin it is more powerful than formic aldehyde. Camphor and some volatile oils have also been employed as air disinfectants, but their virtues lie chiefly in masking, not destroying, noxious effluvia. In the 2nd class—non-gaseous disinfecting compounds—all the numerous antiseptic substances may be reckoned; but the substances principally employed in practice are oxidizing agents, as potassium manganates and permanganates, “Condy’s fluid,” and solutions of the so-called “chlorides of lime,” soda and potash, with the chlorides of aluminium and zinc, soluble sulphates and sulphites, solutions of sulphurous acid, and the tar products—carbolic, cresylic and salicylic acids. Of the physical agents heat and cold, the latter, though a powerful natural disinfectant, is not practically available by artificial means; heat is a power chiefly relied on for purifying and disinfecting clothes, bedding and textile substances generally. Different degrees of temperature are required for the destruction of the virus of various diseases; but as clothing, &c., can be exposed to a heat of about 250° Fahr. without injury, provision is made for submitting articles to nearly that temperature. For the thorough disinfection of a sick-room the employment of all three classes of disinfectants, for purifying the air, for destroying the virus at its point of origin, and for cleansing clothing, &c., may be required.