What Is ATP Surface Testing?

Two janitorial cleaners are wiping down areas of an office and using ATP surface testing to review the results.
ATP Surface Testing

Strict cleaning processes backed by quality control systems that quickly verify and validate surface cleanliness are essential to keep a facility’s occupants safe and healthy. ATP surface testing is one of the methods cleaning professionals can use to ensure their facilities are safe and sanitized. 

However, other methods are available in 2023, and ATP surface testing has limitations.

This article will discuss ATP surface testing its history, its limitations, and explore alternate surface testing solutions.

A Brief History of ATP Surface Testing

Before developing more advanced, more accurate solutions for measuring surface cleanliness, ATP testing was the go-to methodology for biological contamination detection in the cleaning industry. It is still used by many cleaning teams today.

When first introduced, ATP surface testing was revolutionary for the janitorial industry. It was the first test that was easy to use, portable, and also delivered fast, measurable results indicating if live biological material was present on a surface. 

What Is ATP?

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is a biological compound found in the mitochondria of all living beings, including bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. All living cells use ATP to transfer and store energy. 

Live Cells Indicate Risk

Every day, people shed skin cells rich in ATP that can easily find their way onto surfaces. Every time we touch a surface, such as a doorknob, lightswitch or sink faucet, we could leave some of our ATP-containing cells on those surfaces. 

In addition to our skin cells, any bacteria or viruses on our skin are also left on the surfaces we touch.

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Therefore, the presence of live cells indicates that harmful contaminants may be present on a surface. With ATP testing, living cells on a surface can be detected, which means dangerous pathogens may also be on that surface.

How Does ATP Surface Testing Work?

ATP surface testing uses a biochemical assay that induces a bioluminescence response from ATP compounds when exposed to a reactive organic substrate.

When ATP is exposed to the chemical luciferin, ATP produces a bioluminescent flash. This flash isn’t detectable by the human eye, but it can be detected using a device called a luminometer. The higher the number of live cells on the surface being analyzed, the greater the response from the luminometer.

What Are the Limitations of ATP Surface Testing?

False Negatives

False negatives are a problematic limitation of ATP surface testing. A false negative is when a test result indicates a surface is clean when it is actually contaminated. Certain disinfectants, degraded ATP samples, technical errors, sample scope, and uncalibrated test devices can easily result in a false negative ATP test result.

False Positives

False positives can also occur with ATP testing. In the event of a false positive test, cleaning staff can use more cleaning supplies, testing equipment, and more valuable time than necessary to clean and validate a surface’s cleanliness. False positives can be caused by compromised test swabs, cross-contamination, and residual ATP from dead cells. 

No Visual Validation Capability

With an ATP test, it’s difficult to determine where contamination is present on a surface. If a surface test result indicates contamination, it’s impossible to know precisely where the live cells were found on the surface. This means you can’t easily verify if cleaning efforts mitigated a contamination risk.

Inconsistent Results

Another limitation of ATP surface testing is that results can be inconsistent. Sample size, sample scope and the amount of contact time with a surface all contribute to getting an accurate result. If any of these three factors are compromised, getting an inaccurate reading is easy.

Alternatives to ATP Surface Testing 

In recent years new solutions to surface testing have emerged, providing janitorial companies with viable alternatives to the decades-old ATP surface test.

Surface Imaging Technology

With surface imaging testing methods, cleaning professionals can quickly identify and track a surface’s contamination level with precision and accuracy. This innovative technology is a hygiene monitoring tool that shows a lack of cleanliness (removal of organic contamination from a surface). The colour intensity increases from yellow to red based on the signal strength.  It provides feedback on the level of potential environmental risk on hard, non-porous surfaces as a measure of cleaning thoroughness. Pathfinder combines surface imaging tools and cloud-based computing to make an all in one robust, cost-effective quality management system.

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With surface imaging technology, cleaning companies have access to numerous benefits, including the following:

  • Visually identify biological material on a surface
  • Measure the efficacy of a cleaning process
  • Verify and validate janitorial protocols
  • Track hygiene monitoring remotely

Currently, this type of surface testing is only available through Optisolve® and is a GBAC Star Registered product and technology. It’s also the only surface testing method that shows the precise location of contamination on a surface.

Microbial Testing

Instead of testing for ATP, janitorial teams use microbial-specific assays to test surfaces for specific types of bacteria or fungi. This can provide a more targeted approach to testing and help identify particular areas that need additional attention. 

However, these tests are limited in their ability to identify all types of biological material, such as viruses and non-targeted bacterial spores.

Black Light Testing

Janitorial teams can also use  black light units to identify areas of contamination that might not be visible under normal lighting conditions. Some types of bacteria and fungi will fluoresce under ultraviolet light, making it easier to identify areas that need additional cleaning. 

Black light testing requires multiple steps, including a room to be dark to detect contamination and, therefore, is not ideal for high-traffic areas where routine cleaning is needed.

Rapid Surface Hygiene Kits

Commercially available surface testing kits can be used to test for surface contamination. These kits typically use a colorimetric or enzymatic reaction to detect the presence of food material or specific yeasts, mold spores or bacteria on a surface. These are commonly used in the food safety industry.

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Unlike the surface imaging solution mentioned above, rapid surface kits cannot identify all types of biological material or accurately pinpoint a potential contaminant’s location.

Trust Optisolve for Elite Hygiene Monitoring

Whether you’re looking for a way to visually identify biological material, measure the efficacy of cleaning efforts, verify and validate janitorial protocols or track hygiene monitoring remotely,  Optisolve® provides the best solution.

With our surface imaging technology combined with cloud-based computing and photographic evidence of surface contamination, we have revolutionized how janitorial companies can test for contamination on surfaces. Contact our team to learn how to easily transform and streamline your team’s surface cleaning efforts.