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Greener School Cleaning Supplies

Research Links Air Quality to Cleaning Supplies

November 3, 2009

Greener School Cleaning Supplies: Executive Summary

Cleaning supplies used in 13 large California school districts release an airborne brew of chemicals, including a number that have been linked to asthma or cancer by state and federal health authorities. Tests of 21 cleaners from these schools conducted for the Environmental Working Group found that when used as directed, the products released six chemicals known to cause asthma, 11 contaminants that are known, probable, or possible cancer-causing substances in humans, and hundreds of other compounds for which there is little or no hazard information.

The school districts using these products are Bakersfield City and the unified districts of Fairfield-Suisun, Fresno, Jefferson (Daly City), Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento City, San Bernardino City, San Francisco, San Jose, Stockton, Visalia, and West Contra Costa County. Some of these districts have reduced their use of more toxic products by adopting or trying green cleaning supplies.

In all, air testing revealed 457 chemicals emitted by these products. While some of these airborne compounds are known to be hazardous, nothing is known about the health risks of most of them. Manufacturers’ documents disclosed the presence of another 42 chemical ingredients that air testing could not pick up.

Statewide, cleaning supplies release 32 tons of contaminants into the air each day.

Some of the products tested are widely used in American households, including:

  • Comet Disinfectant Powder Cleanser, 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.
  • Simple Green, a general purpose cleaner that released 93 chemicals into the air, including two linked to cancer (2-butoxyethanol and acetaldehyde) and one linked to cancer and asthma (formaldehyde).
  • Febreze Air Effects, an air freshener that gave off 89 airborne contaminants including acetaldehyde, a chemical linked to cancer.

EWG also tested several "green" cleaners used by school districts that have chosen to use products independently certified as being free of several harmful ingredients. The results showed that green cleaning supplies can reduce chemical exposure in two important ways:

  • Green cleaners released a lower overall number of measurable air contaminants. The conventional cleaners analyzed produced three to five times more air contaminants than green general purpose cleaners.
  • Green cleaners produced lower levels of one important class of air pollutants, volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Total VOC levels measured from conventional general purpose cleaners were six times higher than their green counterparts.

Even so, most green cleaning products could be a little greener. Although they emitted fewer potentially hazardous chemicals overall, our testing showed that some certified green products release measurable levels of substances that could pose a risk to children's health, indicating that the certification process is not airtight and needs to be continually upgraded.

Ingredients pose a health risk:

Among the hundreds of chemicals identified in the school cleaners were:

  • Six known to cause asthma (formaldehyde, styrene, methyl methacrylate, ethanolamine, alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride, and 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 are known, probable, or possible human carcinogens (formaldehyde, styrene, chloroform, trichloroethylene, benzene, 1-chloro-2,3-epoxypropane, acetaldehyde, N-ethyl-N-nitroso-ethanamine, 2-butoxyethanol, ethylbenzene, and quartz). Incidence of childhood cancer rose 28 percent from 1974 to 1998, with especially significant increases in leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and several brain and nervous system cancers.
  • 283 on which there is almost no scientific data, according to a review of the scientific literature. Outdated federal regulations do not require safety testing of all chemicals, resulting in a vast gap in knowledge about potential health risks of many substances in everyday products.

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. As a result, school staff and consumers do not have the information they need to select products made with safer ingredients.

What about H1N1?

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.

From the CDC:

Routine cleaning: School staff should routinely clean areas that students and staff touch often with the cleaners they typically use. CDC does not believe any additional disinfection of environmental surfaces beyond the recommended routine cleaning is required.

Specific Product Suggestions

EWG tested four products approved by EPA for controlling influenza A viruses like H1N1. Based on our tests of these approved products, we recommend Alpha HP as a preferred disinfection option, because it exposes children to few toxic chemicals. If schools use bleach as a disinfectant, we suggest that they not spray the product, as studies show that custodians and professional cleaners exposed to bleach spray products face increased risk of developing asthma.

What we can do to keep the air in classrooms clean


  • Learn about your school's cleaning policy and educate school staff about certified green cleaning supplies.
  • Follow EWG's tips for cleaning your home.
  • Support local, state, and federal efforts to promote green cleaning in schools and to require safety testing and disclosure of ingredients.

Local, state, and federal governments

  • Require use of certified green cleaning supplies in schools and other public buildings.
  • Require disclosure of all ingredients on product labels.
  • Require safety testing of chemicals in cleaners.


  • Disclose all ingredients on labels.
  • Eliminate ingredients with known risks to health.
  • Help schools pick kid-safe cleaning supplies.


  • Make the switch to certified green cleaning products and practices and help other schools do the same.
  • Ensure that all cleaning is done at times when students, including those staying for after-school programs, are not in the building.

General purpose cleaners: Conventional products are five times more polluting.


Worst Product Types: These types released the largest number of air pollutants
  • Graffiti Removers
  • Air Fresheners
  • Floor Finishes
Worst Cleaners: These products released the largest number of air pollutants
  • Comet Disinfectant Powder Cleanser
  • Simple Green Concentrated Cleaner/Degreaser/Deodorizer
  • Febreze Air Effects
Best Cleaners: These certified green products released few air pollutants and none known to cause asthma or cancer
  • Glance Non-Ammoniated Glass & Multi-Purpose Cleaner*
  • Marauder Environmental General Purpose Cleaner

*There are many versions of Glance. Only Glance NA meets these criteria.