Toxic Cleaner Fumes Could Contaminate California Classrooms

Santa Monica, CA -- Air pollution testing conducted for the Environmental Working Group (EWG) reveals that cleaning supplies used in 13 key California school districts can cloud classroom air with more than 450 distinct toxic contaminants, including chemical agents linked to asthma and cancer. EWG released its findings today in Santa Monica during a news conference where attendees, again, called on the State legislature to adopt a measure that would encourage school districts across California to use less toxic cleaning supplies.

The 13 school districts included in the study were chosen for their geographic diversity and diversity of size. Several districts have already begun moving to green cleaners, while others have pilot programs underway at various stages.

Most of the 450 chemicals identified have never been assessed for safety; six are identified with increasing the risk of asthma, and eleven are known, probable or possible human carcinogens.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at present, nearly 1 in 10 children have asthma in the U.S., up from 7.5 percent in 1996, and just 3.6 percent in 1980. One in six California children will develop asthma at some point during childhood or adolescence. Asthma is a major source of absenteeism in California schools. In 2001, 136,000 children with asthma ages 12-17 missed at least one day of school per month, costing schools $40.8 million in state funds.

“Classroom cleaners can deliver harmful fumes to millions of school children each day, and parents have no way to know about it,” said Rebecca Sutton, Ph.D., an EWG senior scientist and author of the study. “Cleaning products aren’t required to list ingredients on the label, leaving school systems and everyday consumers without critical information to make the smart choices.”

Chemicals found in school cleaning products included:

6 that can lead to asthma: formaldehyde, styrene, methyl methacrylate, ethanolamine, alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride (ADBAC), didecyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride. Childhood asthma prevalence has more than doubled since 1980, and today nearly 10 percent of children have asthma.

11 that have been tied to increased cancer risk: formaldehyde, styrene, chloroform, trichloroethylene, benzene, 1-chloro-2, 3-epoxypropane, acetaldehyde, N-ethyl-N-nitroso-ethanamine, 2-butoxyethanol, ethylbenzene, quartz. Incidence of childhood cancer rose 28 percent from 1974 to 1998, with especially significant increases in leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and several brain and nervous system cancers.

What about H1N1?

School and health officials are rightly concerned about controlling the spread of the H1N1 virus. This report analyzed air contamination from school cleaning products and does not make any specific recommendations in relation to H1N1 except to follow the advice of the government health officials.

“The H1N1 virus presents a unique situation that requires special precautions. We recommend that all schools follow the official guidance of the CDC and their local health authorities,” said Sutton.

Popular Household Brands are also a Big Problem:

The 20-plus cleaning products EWG tested included a handful of popular brands such as Comet Disinfectant Powder Cleanser, which produced 146 air contaminants when used as directed, more than any other product tested. Comet fumes included formaldehyde, benzene, chloroform, and four other chemicals identified by the state of California as causing cancer or reproductive harm.

Among the others tested were the general purpose cleaner Simple Green and the air freshener Febreze Air Effects, which produced 93 and 89 air contaminants, respectively.

Tests that compared cleaning a model classroom using three ordinary cleansers with three “certified green” products showed that "green” cleaning supplies released less than one-sixth of the air pollution produced by conventional cleaning. Tests did find low levels of chemicals tied to cancer and asthma in some of the green products. But overall, certified green cleaning supplies produce lower pollution levels and fewer chemicals than conventional products.

“Green cleaners could be greener,” said Sutton, “but our test show that they are consistently more environmentally friendly than their conventional counterparts.

Last spring, California Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-41st District) introduced legislation that would require public schools to adopt the use of certified green cleaning products if they could do so at the same cost. The Clean and Healthy Schools Act (AB 821) is currently before the Assembly’s appropriations committee for consideration.

Several California school districts have already adopted green cleaning policies and they have seen no increase in costs.

"Keeping children healthy, in school and ready to learn is the most important thing parents, schools and industry can do to brighten their future and revitalize the state's economy," said Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee. "Hazardous chemicals have been linked to a variety of serious illnesses including asthma, the leading cause of absenteeism from a chronic illness among California's six million school children. Switching to safer cleaning products will create a healthier environment."

“Green cleaning has proven to be one of the easiest and cost-effective ways for schools to make their facilities healthier and safer for students, teachers and staff while also making a positive impact on the environment,” said Dean Kubani – Director, City of Santa Monica Office of Sustainability and the Environment.

“The Santa Monica Malibu USD is pleased to be partnering with the City of Santa Monica and the Green Schools Initiative to pilot test “green “cleaning products and practices in selected SMMUSD schools,” said Tim Cuneo, Superintendent of the Santa Monica/Malibu Unified School District. “The training that our staff will be receiving will assist us in continually improving the environment in which children learn and employees work. This is another example of the collaborative efforts between our two agencies that benefit the community.”

“This is another effort on the part of the District to reduce health and environmental effects by incorporating the use of “green “cleaning products and practices in the District,” said Ralph Mechur, Board of Education President of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. “The pilot test results will help SMMUSD make informed decisions about the most cost-effective, safest, and highest performing products appropriate for use in district schools.”

“The alarming truth is that we know far too little about what’s in the cleaning supplies used in schools -- and in our homes,” wrote EWG in its report. “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. As a result, school staff and consumers do not have the information they need to select products made with safer ingredients.”

EWG’s tests underscore the need for disclosure of all ingredients in cleaning supplies used in schools, offices, and at home. New York Representative Steve Israel (D) and Minnesota Senator Al Franken (D) recently introduced federal legislation to require household cleaning products to list the ingredients on the labels of all items, from laundry detergent to countertop cleaners.

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