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Green Schools Include Green Cleaning

December 16th, 2009 · 4 Comments

Try an experiment with paint. Paint one side of a piece of wood with low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint and lay it to dry somewhere in the house. Wait a day or two, paint the other side with traditional. The difference will be clear.

When it comes to cleaning, however, too many of us have become accustomed to associating a strong chemical smell (that bleach) with ‘clean’ rather than realization that the smell (and associated headache, breathing problem, etc) is an indication of a problem, not a solution, and a problem for which the solution is readily in hand.

Now, while many are aware of this in our own homes, we send our children off to school with an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality. And, however well-meaning they might be, many working in school systems’ supplies or maintenance organization remain with that old (20th) century think of ‘the chemical smell is a sign of a clean, disinfected space’. In the face of H1N1 and other health risks, they strong chemical smell is associated, for many, with safety even though in fact those chemicals create risk.

Greening the Schools is perhaps the most cost-effective path toward improving school education. This includes better lighting, better heating controls, fresher and higher-quality food, and ‘green cleaning’.

As for the last, the Environmental Working Group recently released Greener School Cleaning Supplies = Fresh Air + Healthier Kids”.

As part of this work, EWG tested 20 cleaners used in Califronia schools. They

“detected hundreds of contaminants, including six that cause asthma, 11 tied to cancer in people, and many more that have never been evaluated for safety.”

Some testing categories didn’t seem to extreme. Three disinfectants, none with more than eight detected contaminants, only 1 asthamagen detected, no carcinogens. Not perfect, by any means, but seemingly nothing to be too excited about … especially when looking at other areas. Of the three, bathroom cleans, 3M’s didn’t scale too badly (no detected asthamagens or carcinogens), but NABC’s had two astmagens. The ‘do you want this around your children’ red line came from Comet disinfectant powder (which used to be in my home and is certainly in many schools), which

“emitted 146 contaminants when used as directed, including formaldehyde, benzene, chloroform and four other chemicals identified by the state of California as causing cancer or reproductive harm”.

At what cost, you might ask, in health a chemically induced feeling of cleaniness?

Writ large, although far from perfect, “green” cleaners emitted lower numbers of air contaminants (roughly 1/5th to 1/3rd traditional cleaners), with about 1/6th the level of VOCs.

As EWG concluded,

The alarming truth is that we know far too little about what’s in the cleaning supplies used in schools – and in our homes. Legally, nearly any chemical can be used as an ingredient, and cleaning product labels are not required to list ingredients. Lacking a legal definition of words like “non-toxic,” manufacturers can make misleading claims

EWG has resources to help achieve greener school cleanign via their ‘greener school cleaners = healthier kids’ page. (By the way, to make clear, ‘healthier kids’ (and teachers and school staff) translates quite directly into better student performance and lower cost education.)  Looking through the report makes me want to contact the school board and, well, EWG makes it easy to do with a draft letter and

Two interesting items seem missing from EWG’s material

  • Evaluation of ‘home made’ (orange peels, vinegar, such …) cleaning options as opposed to commercial items.
  • Anything directly targeted to support student activism (or recognizing it exists). The ‘sample letter’ comes from a parent; it is “A Fact Sheet for School Administrators and Parents“. In many schools around the country, students are leading the charge toward greening … but, this is a minor quibble as student activists will be quite able to read the fact sheet and/or reword the draft letter.

EWG also provides recommendations for the home

  1. Less is More
    Dilute your cleaning supplies according to instructions and use only what’s needed to get the job done.
  2. Open the Window
    Clean with windows and doors open so you don’t trap air pollution inside your home.
  3. Use Gloves and Other Precautions
    Cleaning chemicals may harm or penetrate skin and eyes – check warning labels.
  4. Keep Kids Away
    Children are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals. If they like to help, let them clean with soap and water, not toxic cleaners.
  5. Avoid “Antibacterial”
    If your family is generally healthy, there’s no need to use potentially toxic “antibacterial” products, according to the American Medical Association. Wash your hands with plain soap and water.
  6. Never Mix Bleach with Ammonia, Vinegar, or Other Acids
    These combinations can produce deadly gases.
  7. Don’t Be Fooled by Labels – Buy Certified Green Products
    Label claims aren’t always true. Cleaning supplies certified by Green Seal or EcoLogo meet green standards.
  8. Try Natural Alternatives
    Experiment with non-toxic options like vinegar and baking soda.
  9. Take Care with Pine and Citrus Oil Cleaners
    Avoid using these cleaners especially on smoggy days, when the ingredients can react with ozone to produce cancer-causing formaldehyde.
  10. Skip the Biggest Hazards
    Avoid air fresheners, use a baking soda and water paste to clean the oven and tackle toilet stains, and use a mechanical snake to unclog the drain.
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Tags: building green · environmental · green

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Scoopy // Dec 17, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    This is exactly the kind of information I’ve been looking for, thank you so much! My daughter is asthmatic and it matter a lot to me what my school uses to clean, I’ve been looking for research to slap down in front of them to get them to change. I also found this site with some good information on it about Accelerated Hyrdogen Peroxide, which I hear is a far better choice for cleaning and disinfection than bleach, it was mentioned favorably in the Environmental Working Group report:

    Well, “Scoopy”, it seems odd and makes me wonder when the URL for signature is the same site that you comment on — a commercial connection? In any event, letting it through because the link is acceptable to me — but warning to readers that there is the potential that this is a ‘paid’ endorsement sneaking in as comment.

  • 2 uberVU - social comments // Dec 22, 2009 at 9:54 am

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by ClimaTweets: [Get Energy Smart] Green Schools Include Green Cleaning: Try an experiment with paint. Paint one side of a piece of…

  • 3 Mark // Dec 22, 2009 at 11:09 am

    This is great and I couldn’t agree more that green cleaning is one of the most cost effective ways that schools can move down the path of greening their facilities. I think the one thing that the EWG misses is that an effective green cleaning program not only uses less-toxic chemicals, but is uses less chemicals by using new technologies such as microfiber cloths, steam, activated water or other items. This makes the benefits of a green cleaning program even greater than what EWG reported.

    And I too think we need more student materials for activism. And we’re working at putting some of this together right now. But you can also check out our (Healthy Schools Campaign) Quick and Easy Guide for Green Cleaning in Schools for a comprehensive guide to moving a school to a green cleaning program.


  • 4 Green Office Supplies // Jan 12, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Not only should schools adhere to this information, but I think offices should too. The going green movement not only is cost effective, but it creates a healthier environment for people to live in. Great article!