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Greening school cleaning supplies

More schools seek safer, cost-effective products
A growing number of states require or encourage school districts to adopt green products.
A growing number of states require or encourage school districts to adopt green products.

More than 33 conventional chemicals went into cleaning Columbia Public Schools in Missouri—14 alone for the bathrooms.

The process grew so confusing that the district couldn’t write a training manual. But it was the health risk posed by products with potential carcinogens that pushed the district to adopt simpler, more cost-effective—and ultimately greener—methods in 2009.

“It wasn’t healthy for our students, let alone our custodians, to be in our buildings,” says Mike Jones, director of custodial services for Columbia schools.

So Jones adopted “Process Cleaning for Healthy Schools,” a national, nonprofit green cleaning program that makes health a higher priority.

How do you know it’s green?

Want to know how to launch your district’s own green movement? Here are some places to start your research.

1. The Environmental Protection Agency provides online lists of products that meet its Safer Choice guidelines, which allows companies to label products that contain what the agency terms “safer chemical ingredients.” 

2. Healthy Schools Network Inc. offers an online toolkit with guidelines on how to pick green products, from office equipment to cleaning supplies. It’s a good place for districts to locate low-emissions and low-toxicity products. 

3. The Environmental Working Group gives tips on how to read labels and decode terms like “chlorine-free” and “biodegradable.” 

4. Green Seal, a nonprofit, checks green product claims and updates its list weekly. It also stresses proper training, even for districts using eco-friendly products. “Even if [products] are greener than alternatives, you still need to treat them with respect,” says Mark Peruzzi, Green Seal’s senior vice president of outreach and strategic relations. 

5. The UL Environment company also maintains an online list of products certified by their ECOLOGO and GREENGUARD labels. These include the following two products: Spectrum Select’s Clear Light Glass and Surface Cleaner, plus EnvirOx’s Green Certified Hard Water and Soap Scum Remover. 

“Green cleaning products are a safer alternative to protect the health of students, staff and custodians, and less harmful to the environment,” he adds.

The result? After launching the program in 2009, the district has switched to eight products and saved about $125,000 over the first three years. Teachers cannot bring in their own cleaning products or ask for them on fall supply lists. The district has banned bleach, ammonia and any products with fragrances or dyes, Jones says.

“I run into a lot of vendors who say their products smell so good,” says Jones. “But a clean restroom is a restroom with no smell at all.”

Green cleaning is a growing trend these days. Few can walk through a grocery store and not find green-friendly labels.

Websites also offer recipes on making green products with baking soda and vinegar. But schools don’t have time to brew their own cleaning supplies—nor mix enough to cover the 3.5 million square feet that Columbia schools, for example, cleans daily. (See sidebar online: “From conventional to green”)

However, a growing number of states require or encourage districts to adopt green products.

Vermont, New York, Illinois, Maine, Missouri, Connecticut, Maryland, Hawaii, Iowa, Nevada and the District of Columbia all have requirements for how districts and schools use green cleaning products—but they are all different, according to the Environmental Law Institute, which focuses on research and on strengthening environmental protections around the globe.

For example, some states, including Iowa, require schools to use products that have been tested and verified by third parties not associated with the manufacturer.

ABCs of chemicals

What’s hiding in district’s cleaners? Here’s why you may want to toss them today.

  1. Ammonia, a major irritant to lungs, is often in glass cleaners. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental health research organization believes the chemical to be “of greatest concern” to people with asthma. Ammonia can cause asthma attacks brought on by allergic reactions to repeated exposure.
  2. Butoxyethanol gives that sweet smell to multipurpose cleaners. The federal EPA links high levels to liver and kidney damage. Occupational standard is 50 parts per million of the chemical in vapor form.
  3. Chlorine, sometimes found in bleach and conventional toilet bowl cleaners, can lead to respiratory problems, according to a report from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  4. DEGBE, also called butoxydiglycol, found in some bathroom cleaners, can irritate and inflame lungs. The European Union bans concentrations higher than 3 percent of the full ingredient make-up of a cleaner, according to the Environmental Working Group.

Maryland requires that school boards adopt green cleaning supplies for its schools but allows districts to outline their own requirements when purchasing green cleaning products.

And, still Maine, unlike Maryland, does not require green cleaning in its schools, but does advise districts to create voluntary green guidelines that they can use if they choose. For districts looking to adopt green products, there is plenty to consider. (See sidebar to left: How do you know it’s green?)

Hallways clean, bathrooms less green

Still, most district leaders say removing all chemicals is nearly impossible. Cleaning bathrooms, for example, requires a product designed “for very deep, nasty stuff”—and it is not green, says Mark Silva, director of maintenance, operations and transportation for Novato USD in California. “It’s really difficult to get a green disinfectant that eliminates H1N1 [flu] and MRSA, for example,” he says.

The district uses a disinfectant called Buckeye Terminator, which can be used to kill viruses ranging from Hepatitis B to the flu. The product is left on a surface for a minimum of 60 seconds, and then wiped dry with a clean cloth.

Brian Busby, general manager for facilities in Houston ISD, agrees that a disinfectant is almost always required, particularly on water fountains and toilets. The district disinfects hard surfaces with Quat-256, a diluted, non-green chemical which has a 99.9 percent kill-claim on all airborne and bloodborne pathogens.

“Kids sneeze all the time, touch doorknobs, scrape their knee and touch the walls,” he says. “You have to have a disinfectant that kills airborne and bloodborne viruses or pathogens.”

In most of Houston ISD’s buildings, though, Busby’s 1,300 custodians use three green products, including a Ph-neutral cleaner called Crossbow, which reduces the amount of chemical irritation and burns on workers’ skin, says Busby. Fewer worker comp claims have been filed because chemical burns no longer occur from the free-pouring of such harmful products, he adds.

The cafeteria, for example, is cleaned with a microfiber rag dipped in a bucket of water mixed with a capful of Crossbow. Rags are washed, used only twice and then thrown away—which does produce waste, but less than habitual use of paper towels that can be used only once. Electronics are the easiest to clean, with a simple dusting from a microfiber rag and no liquids, he says. The costs?

Reducing the number of products used to clean surfaces may sound less expensive. But start-up costs in switching from conventional cleaning products and methods to green alternative cleaners and ecologically sound procedures can be sizeable.

In Houston ISD, initial training and equipment set the district back $6 million in 2006. When hiring new custodians, the district has them learn “proper products are being used to clean the proper thing,” says Busby. San Francisco USD used part of a $531 million bond measure, passed in 2011, to buy and install washing machines to clean the rags at one-third of its 100 schools.

But districts say they usually save money by using fewer chemicals. Houston ISD, for example, spends just $400,000 a year on products and mops. Disposable chemicals used to cost $1 million annually, Busby says. Smuggling sprays

To ensure products are green, many districts depend on third-party certification companies to test and verify brand claims. Green Seal, a nonprofit, verifies the environmental impact of products while the certification program also independently tests them for their green claims.

The EPA also offers guidance through its Safer Choice program, which allows companies to label products that contain what the agency calls “safer chemical ingredients” on its web site.

Occasionally, district vendors will offer green products in their catalog. But districts have to ensure errant chemicals aren’t smuggled into schools by teachers, who have grown comfortable using products they know from home.

Transitioning to green cleaning in mid-2007 required a cultural change at Novato USD’s 14 schools, says Silva. He met with principals and teachers weekly to talk about the new products, how they would be implemented, and why this change would be healthier for everyone at the schools. He also ensured that new hires followed green cleaning guidelines.

Custodians make surprise sweeps—checking classroom cubby holes, under classroom sinks and in cabinets—to sniff out smuggled cleaning products that could be against policy (Silva says they don’t open teacher’s desks). If barred conventional products are found, custodians remove them. “Nobody knows when we’re going to come in,” he says. “So I believe it has worked.”

At Columbia schools, custodians give teachers EnvirOx 118 Fresh in a mild concentrated spray, with microfiber cloths. Safety sheets describing the contents of all cleaning products are located in the main office for teachers to review. “You have to get everyone to buy into this and that can be a difficult thing to do,” he says. “People are creatures of habit—they use a product at home and want to take it into the classroom.”

Parents need to be educated as well, says Jan Dunbar, programs manager for Grades of Green, a California-based nonprofit that offers activities and online lists of facts to support schools making an eco-friendly switch. Parents and community members often donate toxic wipes and products, unknowingly, that are inconsistent with a district’s non-toxic efforts, Dunbar says.

“I know we live in California,” says Silva, joking about the state’s reputation for green living. “But green products are better for kids, provides them with a safe environment, and it’s the right thing to do.”

Lauren Barack is a freelance writer based in New York.