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Greener School Cleaning Supplies

Research Links Air Quality to Cleaning Supplies

November 3, 2009

Greener School Cleaning Supplies: Greenwashing

Be Skeptical of 'Greenwashing' Claims

Many cleaners make extravagant claims of being environmentally-friendly, but often this marketing simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. No regulations exist to require that manufacturers be honest with consumers.

A case in point is Simple Green Concentrated Cleaner/Degreaser/Deodorizer. Simple Green’s label advertises "non-toxic" and "biodegradable" as its chief green attributes. It neglects to mention that the principal cleaning ingredient, 2-butoxyethanol, is a possible human carcinogen (EPA 1999), can damage red blood cells (NTP 2000), and is specifically prohibited in green cleaning supplies certified by Green Seal or EcoLogo. Testing reveals that Simple Green emits a host of other air contaminants, including five with well-documented ties to asthma, cancer, hormone disruption, and neurotoxicity - hardly a "non-toxic" product. EWG did not test other products made by the same manufacturer, Sunshine Makers, that are certified green cleaners.

A further greenwashing concern illustrated by Simple Green Concentrated Cleaner/Degreaser/Deodorizer is that of misleading packaging. While directions on the product indicate it should always be diluted, it is packaged with a pump spray top that encourages those not carefully reading directions to use it at full-strength. Typical users thus expose themselves to far more cleaner chemicals by not diluting the product as directed. For this reason, EWG tested this particular product at full-strength.

Product names can also be a source of confusion. JohnsonDiversey makes multiple versions of the glass and general-purpose cleaner Glance – but only Glance NA (Non-Ammoniated) is a certified green product. In EWG's tests, a state-of-the-art air quality laboratory examined both the certified green Glance NA and a conventional version, Glance HC. The conventional product emitted 4 times more contaminants than the green version, including 2-butoxyethanol.

According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations, disinfectant products cannot make green claims because they contain registered pesticides. Some certified-green cleaning products can be used at higher strengths to disinfect. When used in this more concentrated form, green certification standards no longer apply to these products.

While disinfectants can be a useful part of a green cleaning program, they can be overused. Sometimes disinfectants are incorrectly diluted, leading to solutions that are over-concentrated -- particularly when hand mixing methods are used. In other cases, disinfectants are improperly used as general purpose cleaners to save a custodian’s time in switching between different products. Germ control is important for the school environment, but indiscriminate use of disinfectants does not provide added protection from bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens, and can expose children and school staff to hazardous chemicals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) recommend regularly cleaning and sanitizing or disinfecting all areas and items that are more likely to have frequent hand contact, and immediate cleaning of these areas when visibly soiled (CDC 2009; CDPH 2009), consistent with recommendations outlined by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP 2009). However, even with heightened concerns during flu season, neither agency recommends additional disinfection measures beyond those used to keep schools clean.

Air fresheners are an example of cleaning supplies that are unnecessary and potentially harmful. No green certification standards exist for air fresheners. These products are specifically designed to mask odors by contaminating the air with numerous chemicals, exposing nearby people to a host of undisclosed, untested, and potentially toxic substances. Ingredients commonly used to create the fragrances in air fresheners include phthalates, linked to male reproductive system birth defects and hormone disruption (Swan 2005; Main 2006; Huang 2007), and synthetic musks, linked to allergies and hormone disruption (Thune 1988; DeLeo 1992; Schreurs 2004, 2005a, 2005b). Instead of using air fresheners, it is better to identify and clean up or remove the source of any offending odors. Persistent odors can be an indication of inadequate ventilation, mold or mildew, or pests and vermin.

Because marketing claims are unregulated, only certified green products are required to meet comprehensive health and environmental standards. These standards are updated periodically to reflect the latest science on toxic chemicals, ensuring product improvement over time. EWG advises school staff and everyday consumers to look for products certified by Green Seal or EcoLogo when shopping for cleaning supplies for school or home.