What’s in Your Bucket?
– and in the One at Your Kid’s School?
That slightly pungent “clean” smell that you sometimes notice in a freshly scrubbed classroom, restroom — or your kitchen — may be telling you something a lot less appealing.
Environmental Working Group (EWG) studied a sampling of 21 cleaning products that are widely used in schools in California and elsewhere and came up with findings that should concern parents, teachers, custodians and school administrators.
EWG’s tests showed that as a group, these 21 products release into the air no fewer than 457 distinct chemicals, some of which are no doubt the source of that nice clean smell. The trouble is, six of those airborne substances are known to cause asthma and another 11 are known, probable or possible cancer-causers in humans.
As it happens, some of the products tested are also under the sink in millions of American homes. One of them, Comet Disinfectant Powder Cleaner, released 143 contaminants into the air – including formaldehyde, benzene, chloroform and four others that California has formally identified as causers of cancer or reproductive problems. None of Comet’s competitors was tested in this limited sampling.
EWG’s study, conducted by Senior Scientist Rebecca Sutton Ph.D., didn’t attempt to link the presence of these airborne contaminants to actual illnesses in children who attend school the 13 California districts that provided information about the cleaning supplies they use. Cause-and-effect relationships between environmental pollutants and human disorders are virtually impossible to prove. But it’s well known that asthma has been on the increase in American children for decades, as have several childhood cancers. No one knows for sure why we’re seeing these trends, but plenty of people are worried about them. As Sutton said:
“What this means is that parents are sending their children into classrooms that expose them to something else besides an education.”
It’s hardly a big leap to think that it’s a good idea to keep noxious chemicals out of the air wherever young and not-so-young children spend hours every day. Ironically, the students who stay after school to take part in extra-curricular activities – not to mention detention – probably get an extra dose of whatever is in the air, since custodians often do a lot of their work after classes let out.
Worries about indoor air pollution are not new, of course. The issue came to the fore a few decades ago, driven in part by efforts to reduce energy use by insulating and sealing once-drafty homes and other buildings. Schools are hardly exempt. A U.S. Department of Education survey in 2007 found that one in four public schools has inadequate ventilation and one in five has unsatisfactory indoor air. It’s a good bet that chemicals released by school cleaning supplies often foul the air.
Well, what to do?
EWG’s study also looked at “green certified” cleaning products to see if they were less likely to release potentially harmful contaminants. Independent organizations (Green Seal, EcoLogo) that rate products on health-based standards had given them high marks. Both in individual product tests and in simulated classroom cleaning situations comparing them with conventional cleaners, the “green certified” ones came off much better. Overall, conventional general purpose cleaners emitted nearly 5 times more air contaminants than green cleaners. But EWG’s testing showed that even some products certified green had undesirable emissions, indicating the certifying process isn’t airtight.
EWG is urging parents, government officials and school administrators to take these findings to heart. Eight states have already passed laws requiring or encouraging the use of green cleaners in schools. EWG and its supporters are calling on the California legislature to follow suit. (A similar measure failed last year.)
Government officials can and should also require comprehensive labeling of cleaning products to identify all their ingredients. There’s no such requirement today. And governments should also require safety testing of chemicals in cleaning products. That rarely happens.
Consumers can also take action to clean safely at home. EWG’s tips can help.
Schools can act on their own to adopt green cleaning practices, of course, and a number have done that, in California and elsewhere. Some measures are cost-free: for instance, schools should be cleaned only when students are out of the building.
Finally, manufacturers could voluntarily disclose all ingredients on their product labels and eliminate all that have known risks to health.
But we’re not holding our breath.