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.
- Less is More
Dilute your cleaning supplies according to instructions and use only what’s needed to get the job done.
- Open the Window
Clean with windows and doors open so you don’t trap air pollution inside your home.
- Use Gloves and Other Precautions
Cleaning chemicals may harm or penetrate skin and eyes - check warning labels.
- 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.
- 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.
- Never Mix Bleach with Ammonia, Vinegar, or Other Acids
These combinations can produce deadly gases.
- 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.
- Try Natural Alternatives
Experiment with non-toxic options like vinegar and baking soda.
- 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.
- 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.