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Sustainability

Cleaning or contributing?

September 19, 2010
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Today, the marketplace is flooded with different types of cleaning products. The manufacturers of these products are faced with the challenge of creating effective cleaning products for a wide variety of applications that remove indoor pollutants, such as dust, viruses, bacteria, particulates, endotoxins, allergens and mold, while not adding more of these same pollutants or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) back into the air.

You may be asking yourself, “What does this mean for me?”

Well, if you spend any time cleaning, or in an indoor environment that has recently been cleaned, it means a lot to you. Adults in the U.S. spend an average of 20 to 30 minutes a day cleaning their homes.
And, three million people in the U.S. are employed as janitors, cleaners, maids, and housekeeping staff, which represents more than 2 percent of the working population. In addition, we all spend a significant amount of our time in these indoor environments.

A number of studies have confirmed that dust control and deep cleaning are effective methods for reducing levels of viruses, bacteria, particulates, endotoxins, molds, and allergens in indoor environments. However, results have also demonstrated that the products and processes used to keep indoor environments clean may also contribute to poor indoor air quality. In many cases, VOC emissions from cleaning products and application processes, which building occupants can easily inhale, are the primary cause of concern.

Indoor air contains a plethora of chemicals and particles, and anywhere from 100 to 1,000 different VOCs that people can inhale. Some VOCs cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, coughing, headaches, general flu-like illnesses, and skin irritation. Common VOCs and the types/uses of the products found in offices, schools, and homes include: Fragrance/disinfectants (acetaldehyde), surface cleaners (acetone, butoxyethanol, etc.), orange fragrance (limonene), pine fragrance (pinene), deodorizers (dichlorobenzene), and disinfectants (ethanol), just to name a few.

So it isn’t shocking to find out that exposure to VOCs in indoor spaces can cause building occupants to feel uncomfortable, distracted, or sick to the point that it interferes with their ability to work. Additionally, missed work days with reduced activity can cost businesses billions of dollars in lost productivity.

Children’s exposure to VOCs from cleaning chemicals and other sources in schools is another major cause for concern. Children’s physiological makeup is different from adults, since they breathe in more air in relation to their body mass. This means that they have greater exposure to indoor air pollutants and are at particular risk of health problems from breathing in VOCs.

As a result, poor indoor air quality (IAQ) in schools places about 30 million people in the United States at risk for health problems such as coughing, eye irritation, headaches, asthma and allergies. Among those more at risk are the more than six million students who have asthma — the leading cause of school absenteeism and hospitalization in children under the age of 15. It also accounts for an estimated 14 million lost school days and $16 billion in annual health care expenditures for both children and adults.

Now that you know why the products you choose to clean your office, home, or school make a difference, let’s look into how to choose a cleaning product that emits lower levels of VOCs.

First and foremost, there is a major difference between VOC emissions and VOC content as many products certified as green or environmentally friendly are rated by their VOC content, not their emissions. Measuring a VOC by content (weight) does not give a clear picture of how many VOCs are being released into the air once the product is used. A product may have 10 percent VOCs by weight, which may be low enough to classify it as green or environmentally friendly, but if it is packaged as an aerosol, it will atomize the VOC particles during use, increasing the potential for airborne exposure.

GREENGUARD Environmental Institute (GEI) offers a green cleaning product standard to assist commercial and consumer users in making more informed decisions and to help manufacturers create better products and application processes. While other standards focus primarily on VOC content, GREENGUARD certification focuses exclusively on VOC emissions and their impact on the air we breathe.

Manufacturers, building owners, facility managers, and commercial cleaning companies have made significant and commendable progress in recent years in their efforts to provide and maintain healthier indoor environments. To meet the market demand and reduction of product liability risks, product manufacturers will increasingly need to demonstrate their products’ safety by testing and monitoring VOC emissions.

For a complete report, please read “Cleaning Chemicals and Their Impact on Indoor Environments and Health” found at www.aerias.org.

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