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Greener School Cleaning Supplies

Research Links Air Quality to Cleaning Supplies

November 3, 2009

Greener School Cleaning Supplies: FAQs

  1. What health risks are associated with cleaning supplies?

    People who use cleaning products at home or on the job may increase their risk of developing asthma or triggering asthma attacks. These products can contain ingredients linked to asthma, cancer, reproductive toxicity, hormone disruption, neurotoxicity and other health effects. Exposure to low levels of these chemicals over a lifetime may increase the risk of developing serious health problems.

  2. Can cleaning products harm my child’s health?

    Yes. Children accidentally exposed to harsh, corrosive cleaners can suffer burns to skin and eyes, and inhaling the fumes can cause lung damage. Many cleaners contain ingredients known to cause asthma in otherwise healthy people, and an even larger number can trigger asthma attacks. Some contain ingredients linked to cancer, reproductive toxicity, hormone disruption, and neurotoxicity. Repeated exposure may increase your child’s risk of developing cancer, reproductive problems, or other serious health conditions.

    Children can be exposed to school cleaning supplies in many ways. Some cleaning chemicals contaminate the air and expose children through inhalation. Others remain on surfaces or contaminate dust, and may be absorbed through the skin or ingested after a child touches them.

    Cleaning activities often occur later in the afternoon when school is over, reducing children’s exposure. However, students participating in after-school activities may be exposed to higher levels of air pollution from cleaning.

    Some of the same cleaning products or ingredients used in schools may be found at home. It’s important to use safer cleaners and to clean with the windows open so that air pollution from cleaning supplies isn’t trapped indoors. Check out EWG’s 10 tips for safer cleaning at home.

  3. How can I protect my child from harmful cleaning supplies?

    Talk to the administration to learn about the cleaning policy at your child’s school. Customize EWG’s sample letter and provide the Benefits of Certified Green Cleaning Supplies fact sheet to help make your case. Check out our tips for talking to schools for suggestions on ways to urge your school to use green cleaning products and practices.

    At home, follow EWG’s 10 Tips for safer cleaning. And spread the word about the hidden toxins in cleaning supplies.

  4. How can I find out what ingredients are in my cleaning products?

    Call the company. Manufacturers are not required to label their products with a full list of ingredients, but some companies will provide more information if you ask for it. Check your products for a phone number to call and let companies know you want a complete list of ingredients.

  5. How can I find out what cleaning supplies are used at my child’s school?

    Ask and observe. You have every right to know what cleaners are used around your children. Ask administrators what cleaning supplies custodians use and how often. When you’re on school grounds, check classrooms and janitor’s carts. Go back to the administration if you spot any cleaners they didn’t mention.

  6. Won’t green cleaning cost more?

    Green cleaning need not cost schools any more than conventional cleaning – in fact, some have saved money by making the switch. Some green cleaning products cost about the same as their conventional counterparts. In addition, schools can save money by simplifying their cleaning supplies inventory, using automatic dilution equipment that prevents waste and reduces injuries caused by corrosive cleaning chemicals.

    In 2007, Illinois passed the Green Cleaning Schools Act, which included an exemption clause that allows schools to opt out of the law’s green cleaning requirements if they would increase their cleaning costs. As of April 2009, only four school districts have applied for an exemption for economic reasons, out of nearly 900 districts in the state.

    Read about more successful green cleaning in schools.

  7. What about H1N1?

    Most health authorities recommend frequent hand washing and careful cleaning as the best ways to reduce the risk of flu. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend schools regularly clean and sanitize all areas and items that are likely to be frequently touched and immediate cleaning of visibly soiled areas. These groups do not recommend use of disinfectants beyond measures already in place to keep schools clean. Instead, they urge frequent hand washing and isolating sick students and staff as the best means to control the H1N1 virus.

    General purpose cleaners can remove many infectious germs, and many schools also use disinfectants or less potent sanitizers that contain EPA-registered pesticides. While judicious use of disinfectants and sanitizers may be worthwhile, overusing them does not provide any additional protection and can expose students and staff to toxic chemicals.

    When disinfectants or sanitizers are used, they should be carefully selected to minimize children's exposures to toxic ingredients, and custodians must be trained to use these products correctly to protect both school children and custodians themselves.

  8. Does the federal government regulate cleaning supplies?

    No. The government does not require health and safety testing of products or ingredients. It also does not require that cleaning products carry a list of ingredients.

    “Antibacterial” cleaning products contain pesticides that have undergone testing overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency. The pesticide content must be indicated on the label. In California, cleaning supplies that emit state-identified “Proposition 65” carcinogens and reproductive toxins at levels above health-based limits must have a warning label. California also limits emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOC) of many cleaning products.

  9. How do I know if a cleaner is really “green”?

    Check the certification. Lots of companies make misleading “green” claims to sell products. Only cleaners certified by Green Seal or EcoLogo must meet strict health and environmental standards. These nationally-recognized, independent groups publish publicly-available standards based on an open, transparent process and revise their standards periodically to reflect the latest science.

    There are many certified green professional cleaning products like those typically used in schools, but far fewer certified green household cleaning supplies, so ordinary consumers do not have as many green cleaning options. For this reason, some people have begun using natural ingredients like vinegar and baking soda to clean their homes.

  10. Which green cleaning product certifiers do you recommend?

    EWG recommends Green Seal- and EcoLogo-certified products because they are significantly safer than conventional products.

  11. Where can I buy green-certified household cleaners?

    Check the Green Seal and Eco-Logo websites for lists of certified green household cleaning supplies. If you click here to buy them through Amazon, a percentage of the proceeds goes to EWG to help fund research like this.

    If you’re looking for professional cleaning supplies, try these links: Green Seal and EcoLogo.

  12. How do the certifiers get ingredient information when consumers can’t?

    Manufacturers who seek certification must disclose their product ingredients. Certifiers do not test the cleaning products themselves but rely on the information provided by the companies.

  13. Why is it so important to read the directions on my cleaning supplies?

    Besides obvious concerns such as whether you should wear gloves while using the product, directions can help you avoid waste. Many products are not intended to be used at full strength except to clean the toughest soil or stain. Diluting products appropriately saves money and exposes yourself and your family to fewer chemicals.

    For example, directions for Simple Green Concentrated Cleaner/Degreaser/Deodorizer indicate that it should always be diluted, but it is packaged with a pump spray top that encourages consumers to use it at full-strength.

  14. What is the problem with air fresheners? Is there a safe way to use them?

    Air fresheners are unnecessary and potentially harmful. They mask odors by contaminating the air with numerous chemicals, exposing people to a host of undisclosed, untested and potentially toxic substances. It is better to identify and clean up or remove the source of any offending odors. A box of baking soda is also a safe way to eliminate odor. Persistent odors can be an indication of inadequate ventilation, mold or mildew, or pests and vermin.

    There are no green certification standards for air fresheners.

  15. How can I prevent the spread of germs and keep my family healthy at home?

    The best way to stop the spread of germs is to wash your hands regularly with ordinary soap and water. Studies show that “antibacterial” soap provides no extra germ-fighting benefits and exposes you and your family to potentially harmful chemicals. An alcohol-based hand rub can be useful in situations where soap and water aren’t available. Make sure your kids practice healthy habits, especially during cold and flu season.

    Keep your home clean to prevent the spread of germs. Wipe down kitchen counters regularly. If you’re worried about germ build-up in your kitchen sponge, wet it and microwave it for 2 minutes to kill bacteria. When cleaning the toilet, toss your cleaning cloth or wipe into the laundry bin or the trash right after use to avoid using it on other surfaces, and keep your toilet brush in an out-of-the-way spot.

    Our tips for safer ways to clean your home lists more ways to fight germs without toxic chemicals.

  16. If I switch to green cleaners, how can I safely dispose of my remaining chemical cleaners?

    If you choose to toss your old cleaners instead of using them up, drop them off at your local hazardous waste facility. Don’t pour cleaning products down the drain – some of the ingredients can harm wildlife as well as people.

  17. Can natural ingredients like vinegar and baking soda really keep my home clean?

    Yes. Cleaning with natural ingredients is becoming more popular as people look for ways to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals and save money at the same time. Check our tips for safer ways to clean your home for a few suggestions.

    Don’t assume that all natural cleaning products are safe -- some naturally-derived ingredients have been linked to health concerns. For example, citrus or pine oil cleaners emit terpenes, chemicals that react with trace levels of ozone in the air to form formaldehyde. Avoid using citrus or pine oil cleaners especially on smoggy (high ozone) days.