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Name: Mary J.
Status: Educator
Age: 30s
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: N/A 

I have heard that vinegar can be used as a replacement for bleach as a disinfectant. I would like to know if this is true,where there may be proof I can show to others and what strength the vinegar should be to be most effective.

A "proof" that vinegar is a disinfectant under certain conditions is the fact that it is used, along with salt [brine], to make and preserve pickles. In general the highest concentration possible would be most effective. In the U.S. 5% acetic acid constitutes vinegar and high concentrations are available only through chemical suppliers and not in the grocery store or pharmacy.

As a general disinfectant, I would suspect that bleach, because it disinfects by oxidation, is more effective.

Vince Calder

The effectiveness of various concentrations depends on the demands. Undiluted bleach can be used to desinfect used syringes (used by intravenous drug users) and can inavtivate HIV completely, however acetic accid does not inactivate HIV. Less dramatic, 2% is sufficient to disinfect nebulizers used by patients with cystic fibrosis at home (these people often suffer from pseudomonas infections). A solution of 1% acetic acid can be used to decontaminate the surface of freshly laid eggs (to remove Salmonella etc. from the surface).

For decontamination of fresh parsley (known to have caused Shigella outbreaks) a dip in vinigar containing 7.6% acetic acid is sufficient. On the other hand, an acid drip of beef meat in 2% acetic acid for decontamination is largely ineffetive against E. coli O:157:H7 (the 'hamburger bug') because this organism is acid-tolerant.

In another study the effectiveness of 2% acetic acid to kill Listeria monocytogenes attached to stainless steel was found to be low, but could be improved by the addition of monolaurin (for use on food-utensils, for example).

All of these studies were under standardized, experimental conditions and the data are available in public databases.

Truy Wassenaar,
Curator of the Virtual Museum of Bacteria

Vinegar is really acetic acid, and will be more effective as a disinfectant at higher concentrations. (It would be most effective undiluted.) In my opinion, the most convincing comparison to bleach would be an experiment to see what survives on a surface like a sinktop after cleaning half with bleach and half with vinegar. You could swipe a cotton swab on each half of the sinktop and then onto a Petri dish with a bacterial growth medium. (I am assuming you have access to this stuff as an educator). Grow the plates at 37 Celsius (98 F) overnight and see what kind of furry stuff grows. You might want to also do a swipe before cleaning to see how much bacteria you were starting with before trying to disinfect.

Christine Ticknor, Ph.D.
Case Western Reserve University

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