George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Green Cleaning: Harmful Products Can Bite the Dust

Cutting out chemical cleaners boosts health for kids and teachers.

October 4, 2007

You start off the school day feeling OK, but then your head starts aching or you feel nauseated. Your eyes start itching, and you're sneezing more often. Maybe it's allergies -- or it could be a reaction to the cleaning supplies used in your school.

With hundreds of kids constantly streaming through their hallways, schools are scrubbed thoroughly and daily. Typically used are industrial-strength cleaners, disinfectants, and deodorizers, and their chemical fumes linger in the air, contributing to indoor pollution. According to Healthy Schools Network, a nonprofit organization lobbying to clean up schools' environmental problems, 60 percent of school kids are at elevated risk of asthma due to poor indoor air quality.

"Many schools aren't well designed or well built, they're overcrowded, and toxic cleaning products create major air issues," says Claire Barnett, Healthy Schools Network's executive director. "Schools use a huge array of unregistered hazardous chemicals." (Of the 85,000 synthetic chemicals in commercial use today, including those used in cleaning, only a fraction have been individually tested for toxicity.)

Daily exposure takes a toll not only on growing children, but on school adults, who have higher-than-normal rates of asthma and respiratory problems. Take glass cleaner: a common ingredient is ammonia, which can irritate the skin, eyes, nose, and throat and, if used too often, particularly in a poorly ventilated area, it can cause fluid buildup in the lungs, nausea, and loss of one's sense of smell.

By contrast, the main ingredients in a truly green cleaner should be a vegetable-based surfactant (that's the sudsing agent that helps break down grime) and purified H2O -- in other words, soap and water.

Fortunately, more schools are throwing caustic cleaning products down the drain and trading them in for less toxic and more environmentally friendly alternatives.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools formally switched to green cleaning in 2000, in response to students' rising rates of asthma and allergic reactions and complaints from teachers and janitors of headaches, skin rashes, and other problems.

With sixty-eight schools, the district didn't have the budget or manpower to switch everything over immediately. To start, it increasingly discouraged cleaning crews from using harsh disinfectants, such as ammonia, to sterilize cafeteria tables. Once a green product was found to efficiently remove dirt and grease and disinfect kitchen surfaces as well as the former cleaner, it was officially put to use in all schools. Now 90 percent of the schools are green-cleaned. Teachers report that fewer students have gone home due to asthma or allergies since the initiative began, says Chief Operating Officer Richard Fellers. And in 2002, the district received the governor's award for environmental excellence.

In 2006, New York became the first state to mandate the use of green cleaning products -- everything from all-purpose cleaners to hand soaps -- in public and private schools; Illinois became the second last May. New York districts may choose cleaners from a list of products certified by Green Seal, a nonprofit environmental certification agency. If a green cleaner doesn't prove effective, a district may switch back to the conventional one. But as demand rises, school officials nationwide are finding it easier to choose from an assortment of green cleaners that get the job done just as well.

Many makers of institutional cleaners now offer a green alternative, but not all these products labeled "environmentally safe," "green," or "nontoxic" are what they appear to be. Some manufacturers just water down the original formulas and call them green. Activists recommend schools choose products rated green by independent parties like Green Seal, which evaluates a product's overall environmental impact, from the source of its raw materials to its packaging.

Green cleaning's high standards can apply to products you use in your home. "Check the product label and look for the health hazard ratings," says Linda Chipperfield, Green Seal's vice president of marketing. "Find those that have the fewest health hazards. Also buy those that are either unscented or have no added fragrances." Alternatively, Barnett says, five effective green cleaners are typically in everyone's cupboards already: baking soda, lemon juice, white distilled vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, and table salt.

With more individuals and institutions jumping on the eco-bandwagon, green cleaning has become easier to do and less costly to support. "When we started, it was hard to find products," says Fellers. "Now it's so much easier because the demand is higher and there are more manufacturers in the green arena. The cost is minimal, but the greatest result is that people feel healthier in our schools."

Vanessa Richardson is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

Come Clean

Sweep your eyes over these guides to approved green cleaning products and information about approval criteria:

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