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Government Action

Greener School Cleaning Supplies: Government Action

November 3, 2009

Children, Teachers and Custodians Lack Protections

School cleaning supplies can contain a broad range of chemical ingredients, many linked to significant health concerns including asthma and cancer. At this time, inadequate government health protections, combined with manufacturers' ability to conceal cleaning product ingredients, mean school staff often lack the information needed to make safer choices about the school cleaners they purchase.

Secret Ingredients

Take a look at a typical cleaning product, and you'll often see a label full of marketing claims and instructions for use. What's missing is a list of ingredients.

Unlike foods, beverages, and body care products, cleaning products need not be labeled with a list of ingredients. School staff and everyday consumers lack key information needed to select cleaning products made with safer ingredients.

Cleaning products must disclose certain kinds of information about ingredients. In the state of California, products containing chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, and other types of reproductive or developmental harm, the "Proposition 65" chemicals identified by the State, must include a warning on the product label if these chemicals are present above specified levels. Companies neglecting to properly label cleaning supplies have been successfully sued by citizens or by advocacy groups and forced to pay fines. Some advocates offer lower fines in their settlements to manufacturers that agree to reformulate products (As You Sow v. The Valspar Corporation, 2008). In addition, "antibacterial" cleaning products are classified as pesticides, and must list the name and quantity of all antimicrobial agents on the product label.

Schools and other institutions can obtain limited information on ingredients and associated health concerns from Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs), documents distributed by the manufacturer that outline safe storage and handling procedures for a product. These documents typically list only the handful of specific chemicals regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and only when those chemicals are present in the product above one percent, or 0.1 percent in the case of carcinogens. MSDSs are designed with occupational exposures in mind, and do not address children's special sensitivity to chemical exposures.

Furthermore, these documents are often found to be out-of-date, inconsistent, and lacking critical information on chronic toxicity and carcinogenicity (Nicol 2008; Karstadt 2009). Many cleaner ingredients, including fragrances, dyes, and preservatives, are never listed, leaving school staff in the dark about what chemicals they're using to clean classrooms, bathrooms, and other school spaces. While a few companies have begun to disclose more information on the chemicals making up their cleaning supplies, most keep their ingredient information secret.

A lawsuit filed earlier this year may begin to correct this gap in cleaning product health protections. On behalf of public health and environmental advocacy groups, Earthjustice is suing Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, and other cleaning product manufacturers for refusing to follow a New York State law passed in 1976 that requires them to disclose the chemical ingredients in their products and the health risks they pose. If successful, this lawsuit would force household and commercial cleaner companies selling products in New York to file semi-annual reports with the State listing the chemicals contained in their products, and describing any company research on these chemicals' health and environmental effects.

A legislative prescription is also in the works: U.S. Representative Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) introduced HR 3057 this year to require that all household cleaners be labeled with a full list of ingredients. This bill would not apply to "institutional" cleaners marketed specifically to schools, office buildings, hospitals, and other institutions. U.S. Senator Al Franken (D- Minn.) has introduced the Senate version of this bill.

Faced with this pressure, the cleaning products industry has announced plans to disclose voluntarily many of the ingredients found in cleaning products. The Consumer Specialty Products Association (CSPA), Canadian Consumer Specialty Products Association (CCSPA) and the Soap and Detergent Association (SDA) recently announced an ingredient communication initiative designed to provide consumers with information about the ingredients in household cleaning products. Starting in January 2010, consumers will be able to call a toll-free number, consult a website or, for some products, check the label to find many major ingredients (Wayne 2009).

While partial, voluntary ingredient disclosure is a substantial improvement over the status quo, full, mandatory disclosure of all ingredients on product labels is essential to protecting public health. In addition, while voluntary ingredient disclosure may occur for household cleaners, it is unclear whether it will also occur for institutional cleaners.

Many States and Districts Support Green Cleaning in Schools

Lax federal health protections have fostered a variety of state efforts to promote green cleaning in schools. Eight states have passed laws on the subject:

  • New York State's 2005 Green Cleaning Act (SB 5435) requires elementary and secondary schools to use green cleaning and maintenance products, under state guidelines.
  • Illinois' 2007 Green Cleaning Schools Act (Public Act 095-0084) requires elementary and secondary schools to develop a green cleaning policy and purchase and use products consistent with state guidelines for green cleaning and maintenance products for schools. School districts that can prove that using green cleaners would pose a financial hardship may receive an exemption.
  • Maine's 2007 Policy to Encourage the Use of Safe Chemicals in Public Schools (Legislative Document (LD) 88; S.P. Chapter 32) requires the State to publish information on green cleaning products and procedures, but does not mandate green cleaning in schools.
  • Missouri's 2008 Green Cleaning for Schools Act (Revised Statutes 161.365; 2008 Mo. Sen. Bill 1181) requires the State to publish information on green cleaning products and procedures, but does not mandate green cleaning in schools.
  • Maryland's 2009 Act Concerning County Boards of Education – Procurement of Green Product Cleaning Supplies (House Bill 1363) requires the State's elementary and secondary public schools to use cleaning products with positive environmental attributes. Local Boards of Education are responsible for defining what may be considered a green product.
  • Connecticut's 2009 Green Cleaning Products in Schools Act (Public Act 09-81) requires elementary and secondary public schools to use certified green cleaning and maintenance products, according to state guidelines.
  • Hawaii's 2009 House Bill 1538, Relating to Environmentally-Sensitive Products, requires the Department of Education to give first preference for Green Seal certified green cleaning products for use in elementary and secondary public schools.
  • Nevada's 2009 Act Requiring School Districts to Use Certain Environmentally Sensitive Cleaning and Maintenance Products (Senate Bill 185) mandates that all public elementary and secondary schools ensure that only green cleaning and maintenance products are used to clean their floor surfaces. The State's Department of Education is required to adopt regulations that define green products and provide districts with a list of approved products. School districts that can prove that using green cleaners would pose a financial hardship may receive an exemption.

Bills on green cleaning in schools were also introduced this year in California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Many proactive school districts in California have already begun adopting green cleaning policies, using certified green cleaners to maintain their facilities. Success stories show that green cleaning is effective, protects the health of students and staff, and can even save money.

Safer Cleaning Supplies Protect Everyone

By cleaning up the cleaning products industry, we can make schools safer for students - as well as custodians and teachers. Parents everywhere can take steps to protect their kids:

  • Ask your school about its cleaning policy and practices. If they're not using certified green products, urge them to start cleaning green with these special tips for talking to schools. And when you're on school grounds, check to ensure the products in the custodial carts match school policy.
  • Support state and local efforts requiring the use of certified green cleaners in schools.
  • Spread the word about the secret ingredients in cleaning supplies, and fight for complete ingredient disclosure for all cleaning products.
  • Don't stop with school - follow EWG advice on green cleaning at home.

Cleaning products are an appalling example of the inadequacy of current chemical protections. The U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act, the law that regulates all industrial chemicals in the United States, was enacted more than three decades ago, and assumes that chemicals in everyday products are safe until proven otherwise. Cleaning supplies and other everyday products can contain ingredients that have never been tested for safety. Lacking labeling requirements, consumers are even denied the right to know what's in the products they buy and use every day. Federal reform is needed to require companies to disclose all ingredients in cleaning supplies and other products, and to test these ingredients for safety.