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Chemicals / Operations / Chemical-free Cleaning / Management And Training
September 2012 Fact-based Management

Least Harmful Cleaning

It's about time we not only reduce harm, but eliminate it altogether.

September 13, 2012
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It is time to move from the idea of reduced harm to the very least harmful strategy for cleaning our buildings.

The 1992 Presidential Executive Order 13101 mandates "the use of products and services that reduce the health and environmental impacts compared to similar products and services used for the same purpose."

I'm suggesting the verbiage be changed from "reduce" to "eliminate."

It's time to move beyond trying to reduce the harm done by the way we clean our buildings and advance toward eliminating the harm we are doing.

It's time to stop being satisfied with doing less harm and adopt a chemical-free model based on a least harmful specification.

The best way to explain this construct is to use a pyramid metaphor to describe the importance of each integrated product choice and examine how they can connect in a comprehensive and integrated system of effective cleaning using traditional, green, natural and chemical-free alternatives.

At its least harmful level, chemical-free cleaning is emerging as the go-to choice for implementing the latest ideas for effective cleaning systems.

Yet, as a practical matter — while chemical-free cleaning may be ideal — it's not easily implementable in today's world.

The reality is that effective cleaning will require a mix of products, equipment and materials that are not likely to be wholly chemical-free.

The movement from today's cleaning systems to a chemical-free model will probably evolve in a series of small steps as the entire industry begins to adjust.

Even as science is helping us move beyond traditional chemicals toward green, less toxic products, it is not likely that the cleaning industry will replace its capital equipment, practices and materials overnight.

Like the movement from traditional chemicals to green chemicals, it will take time to achieve a tipping point for chemical-free cleaning.

So, traditional, green and natural cleaning products should absolutely continue to be included as part of today's cleaning strategy.

I don't see how we could otherwise operate in today's business culture.

What is a concern is the balance of risk that comes with the hierarchy of toxicity inherent on the chemical mix adopted.

With the introduction of chemical-free cleaning strategies and technologies, we can take a step closer to improving health, safety, the ecosystem and our budgets.

A Least Harmful Pyramid

We can now integrate all product alternatives in a cleaning strategy through a four-step pyramid of most safe to least safe cleaning products, equipment and materials.

At the best level of protection, there are effective chemical-free cleaning products available that offer extraordinary value and personal and environmental benefits.

Where no effective chemical-free cleaning alternative is available, natural or enzyme-based alternatives are preferred.

Where no effective natural or enzymatic alternatives are available, certified green chemical alternatives are the next lest harmful strategy.

Where no effective green cleaning chemical alternatives are available, traditional alternatives remain.

Within this mix, a highly effective system of least harmful cleaning can be designed.

Although many have adopted one or more chemical-free alternatives, few have embraced the full range of available alternatives.

This is, in part, because many do not yet understand the range of chemical-free products, materials and equipment available.

If your organization does not require or deliver a comprehensive cleaning program drawn from the ideas suggested by the pyramid, it is not a least harmful program.

Even a wholly green cleaning program — which is vastly more preferable than cleaning with potentially toxic chemicals — does not qualify in its ability to be a least harmful cleaning system.


Vincent F. Elliott is the founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Elliott Affiliates Ltd. of Hunt Valley, Maryland. For more information, visit www.EALtd.com. He is widely recognized as the leading authority in the design and utilization of best practice, performance-driven techniques for janitorial outsourcing and ongoing management. Elliott is also the founder of the Chemical Free Cleaning Network (CFCN). More information about that initiative can be found at www.CFCN.info.

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