Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

Do clean schools make kids sick?

Whenever we walk into a recently-cleaned school classroom or bathroom, the harsh odor of industrial-strength cleaning products hits like a wave. The smell of “clean” can make us cough.

A little cough is the least of our worries. Asthma rates are on the rise – 1 in 6 kids in California develop asthma during childhood. Teachers also suffer significantly higher rates of this life-threatening condition.

Increasing evidence links asthma to exposure to common cleaning products. Cleaning products have also been found to trigger asthma attacks.

Chemicals found in school and household cleaners are associated with even more disturbing health problems, including cancer and reproductive toxicity.

The Clean and Healthy Schools Act (AB 821), introduced in the California state legislature by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) and sponsored by EWG and other school and health advocates, would set schools on a new path to health. The bill would require schools across California to use certified green cleaning products.

Similar bills have passed in New York, Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland. California, so often a leader on children’s health issues, is falling behind.

Why the foot-dragging? We can always blame the budget. California’s economic crisis has hijacked the legislature, stalling all bills that cost the state any money.

But wait — the Brownley bill would allow school administrators to work within their budgets: if green cleaners are too expensive, then they can continue using non-green products.

School administrators shouldn’t have to make a tough choice: these days, green cleaning products are just as effective as old-fashioned products, and they cost no more. In many cases, California school districts that have voluntarily switched to green cleaners have actually saved money.

Problem is, state law classifies our green cleaning bill as a mandate and a new expense. This means that if school districts ask, the state has to pay the entire cost of green cleaning, on top of the funds the state already provides to schools each year.

It’s a Catch-22 – and it’s hurting schoolchildren all over California.

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13 Responses to “Do clean schools make kids sick?”

  1. ariel says:

    california is always in a catch 22 of not valuing education or the enviroment, and having to spend all their budget on prisons for people who would have had better lives if they had had an opportunity to be in parks and good school and lead healthy lives. our society often deals with the symptoms and not the problem.

  2. Nanners says:

    I live in NY and the law for green cleaning products in the public schools was welcomed with open arms. It is a no brainer.

    I have to say that I do not remember nebulizers in the nurses office when I was in elementary during the 1960s and 70s. Today the school nurses have a stash of Rx bronchodilaters for numerous students to be administered when needed. My nephew is one of them.

    I have complained to many school systems about the use of carbonless copy paper and kids’ exposure to chemicals that are unfit for adults. I have seen the forms come home in backpacks as permission slips, report cards, progress reports, school passes, and fundraising forms. Carbonless copy paper is impregnated with chemicals. The microcapsules rupture from the pressure of a pen or printer. This exposes the handler and child to formaldehyde, toluene, di-isocyanates, bisphenol-A, PFOAs, pesticides or biocides, and more. The person separating the forms gets the highest exposure. once carried a warning on the paper as an asthma trigger. (we printed the page) Industry pressured the site in the 1990s and the warning came down. I wrote to the editor a year ago and produced recent studies proving the toxicity of the paper and the asthma risk in adults. He never replied.

    • Rebecca Sutton, EWG says:

      Hi Nanners – Thanks for sharing this information. EWG has not investigated carbonless copy paper. I do see a recent study on the subject that looks interesting:

      Jaakkola MS, Jaakkola JJ. 2007. Office work exposures and adult-onset asthma. Environmental health perspectives 115(7): 1007-1011.

  3. Nanners says:

    Hi Rebecca,

    Thank you for your interest in carbonless copy paper. I am familiar with the Jaakkola study. I actually enclosed it in my letter to the editor of the website and newsletter as mentioned in my first post. I also included an article from National Geographic’s Green Guide and an article from The London Telegraph. I made a follow up phone call and left a voice mail in June 2009. I offered to email my original letter and attachments to their Nashville office. They did not reply.

    There is current research on the adverse health effects of carbonless paper. Susanne Rust of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported the U. of Rochester study in her investigative series on bisphenol-A:

    BPA lingers in body, study finds
    Researchers note sources unrelated to food

    Here are two more important studies that were peer reviewed and published years ago.

  4. christine smith says:

    My 6th grade son has asthma, his attachs are caused by a multi chemical sensitivity. Cleaning products, perfume, air freshners, etc. In the Ohio schools that he attends there is a huge campaign lead by Clorox & Purell. Clorox wipes are on our school supply list & there are now Purell dispensers hanging in the classroom. It surely does not help to tell him not to use them, because everyone else is. He attended a small charter school last year which welcomed my green cleaning products, but he is heading back to public school this year & I don’t know how to handle the situation. I would greatly appreciate any ideas. thank you.

    • Kerala Hubbard says:

      Hi Christine,
      We have lots of those Purell dispensers in our school here in Montana. I don’t like them. My son developed a “mysterious” rash on his hands that every year lasts for (guess how long?) nine months of school! He has now stopped using the Purell.

      I just got involved with a company called Norwex. Their mission is to, “improve quality of life by radically reducing the use of chemicals in personal care and cleaning.” You can clean most of your house with just water and their microfiber cloths, which is great for kids with allergies and asthma. And they have silver woven into the cloths which kills yeast, bacteria and viruses. Therefore when you wipe one surface and then another you don’t cross-contaminate between surfaces. (I use them to clean houses and they really clean well.)

      My friend did the best thing ever, she had a demonstration of Norwex products at our elementry school with about 11 teachers and the principal! It went fantastically! Twice a year the principal buys 50 or more boxes of clorox wipes from Costco and the janitors wipe down the whole school. The principal of our school is now going to buy the Norwex cleaning cloths! She is happy to change, she just didn’t know there were other alternatives and she was just trying to do the best thing she knew.

      I guess my answer to you, is to do what you did at your small charter school. See if you can set up a meeting with the principal and make a good case for changing the way the school is cleaned. I bet if you asked the cleaning crew at your new school about the products they use and told them about your son you might be able to get them on your side too. (The janitors at our school are very nice and really like the kids.)

      Good luck! I am crossing my fingers for you. (If you were interested in Norwex I wonder if you could find someone in your area that sells it. It is very well known in Canada.)

    • Rebecca Sutton, EWG says:

      Thanks for your note Christine, it’s a difficult situation. I suggest you approach your school administration to push for a major change in cleaning policy. If your school or district has a health or wellness committee or an indoor air quality committee, you may want to talk to them first.

      Have you checked the website? It’s got some basic information about how to approach schools, as well as training tutorials and modules that you can listen to on-line and download and adapt to your needs.

      Good luck!

  5. Nanners says:

    Are Clorox wipes intended for use with children? I would contact Clorox and ask for the Material Safety Data Sheet on the wipes. Or ask your school system to provide it. It is the law. They have to.

    The Clorox and Lysol wipes kill me. I had to stop Physical Therapy, because they are constantly wiping down tables. I was sensitized to formaldehyde and I cannot tolerate the disinfectants. I have occupational asthma and other serious health issues from chemical exposure.

    Also, I have purchased hand sanitizers at health food stores. I have no reaction.

    Good luck.

    • Rebecca Sutton, EWG says:

      Thanks for the note, Nanners. I’ve heard about Clorox wipes from a lot of parents, because they are widely used in schools.

      I consulted the Material Safety Data Sheet as you suggested. These wipes contain quaternary ammonium compounds, or “quats,” as the antibacterial agent. (They do not contain bleach.) Quats are typically identified as asthmagens, chemicals that can cause asthma to develop in otherwise healthy people. They can also trigger skin allergies, which could explain your reaction to them.

      Clorox provides directions for use indicating that any surfaces that could come into contact with food or could be mouthed must be rinsed with water after they are wiped with Clorox wipes. It is therefore essential that children or anyone using wipes wash their hands after use.

      These wipes should never be used to clean skin. Clorox wipes directions also specify that these products must be stored out of reach of children.

      Hope this helps – Rebecca

  6. Linda Delp says:

    Here is an article where the Janitors want safer cleaning products in Super Markets. There is too much asthma to make these children be exposed to so many untested chemicals on a daily basis. Our cleaning products and most of our products such as fragrance, soaps, hand wipes, etc. have not been tested for safety before going on the market. They started having hearings last week on the chemicals in our products. Millions suffer not only asthma but migraines, vomiting, neurological problems, etc. from the chemicals in our products. Indoor mold is another problem in schools but that is another story. Linda

    • Rebecca Sutton, EWG says:

      Linda – I couldn’t agree more! We need safety testing so that we can identify and eliminate harmful chemicals from products that kids and workers are exposed to every day. In the meantime, certified green cleaning supplies can help reduce the levels of chemicals that cause asthma and other health problems in our schools, supermarkets, and everywhere else.

      Thanks for the link – Rebecca

  7. I have been taking carbonless copy paper(CCP) out of the hands of toddlers and kids for 22 years. I only learned about the thermal paper a couple of years ago from a paper industry insider. She was a plant manager and told me the thermal paper is as bad if not worse the CCP. The headlines this week are about BPA. EWG needs to address the PFOAs, formaldehyde, toluene, diiso cyanates, alkyl phenolic resins, lodyne, and more. We tried to get attention, but no one really listened. They are now.