Cleaning & Maintenance Management Online

The Asthma-Cleaning Connection

September 19, 2010

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Asthma and cleaning have a close connection. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, airborne allergens and pollutants are up to five to 10 times higher indoors than out. Cleaning should serve to eliminate asthma triggers, but it often has the opposite effect. An ineffective cleaning program never fully removes harmful microscopic particulates from the air. Instead, in an effort to kill microbes, it adds to the problem by introducing damaging cleaning chemical residue into the indoor environment.

Cleaning crews are on the frontlines of the battle against allergens. Janitorial workers suffer from asthma at twice the rate of other occupations. Building occupants, from students to office workers, are next in line to experience the harmful effects of poor indoor air quality (IAQ). The American Lung Association has found that US students miss more than 14 million school days a year because of asthma exacerbated by poor IAQ. Building workers see increased sick days and lost productivity. The costs of poor IAQ can sometimes be hidden in absenteeism and reduced performance, but people across the US experience the harmful effects every day.

If cleaning only adds to health problems, what''s the point? New research and studies on the effects of cleaning show that the status quo no longer cuts it. Effective cleaning programs must clean for health first and appearance second. Fortunately, the cleaning strategies proven to clean for health can help boost productivity and efficiency in the process.

Asthma at Work for One Custodian

Tina Enos, a custodian at the University of Michigan (UM), has a personal take on the effect of poor IAQ in the workplace. An asthmatic, Enos regularly suffered attacks from the dust and allergens that became agitated and airborne during and after cleaning.

An asthma sufferer often acts as a human detector for poor IAQ. "I am a severe asthmatic, and dust is the biggest factor that can trigger an asthma attack for me," says Enos. "Personally, I believe the standard beater bar vacuum was an ineffective tool and threw more dust into the air than it actually picked up."

Recently UM began the transition to a systemized Team Cleaning program, and their equipment transitioned too. UM was using traditional cleaning tools like Kentucky mops, upright vacuums and dust mops. They were replaced with high-powered, high-filtration backpack vacuums and micro fiber tools.

Enos volunteered to be one of four janitors in the pilot program for the new cleaning program. She reports that since the switch "asthma attacks from dust in the air have become almost nonexistent. And dust bunnies? They''re a thing of the past. Air quality, in my opinion, has improved."

Studying the Health Effects of Cleaning

In 2006, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill made waves for a groundbreaking cleaning research study conducted in two campus buildings over a four-month period. Led by technical advisor Dr. Michael Berry, the study evaluated the measurable, microscopic differences between zone and Team Cleaning.

The results were unmistakably conclusive. As found in fungal spore, bacterial and dust counts, and vacuum exhaust tests, Team Cleaning demonstrated a dramatic improvement on indoor environmental quality and building health.

The Berry study used a committee of housekeepers, students, faculty, environmental, HR, purchasing, facilities and safety experts to conduct numerous tests in one zone cleaned building and one Team Cleaned (OS1)® building.

Over the course of the pilot study, Team Cleaning reduced dust concentration by a factor of two—40 to 50 percent better. "Data also suggests that the (OS1) system better manages fungal spores and reduces the risk allergic reaction of occupants," notes Dr. Berry in the study. "The two highest fungal levels were found in zone cleaned processes."

The study pinpointed a notable reason for the seismic shift with the switch to Team Cleaning: the vacuums each method employed. (OS1) and other Team Cleaning programs use a CRI-certified backpack vacuum. Most zone cleaning programs use an upright. Dust and emissions measurements proved that the two are not created equal.

"There was virtually no detectable emission from the Green Label vacuum, compared to a very high emission from the upright, which came in at 240 parts per unit. A level greater than 100 is considered unsanitary and potentially harmful to a large segment of the population," the Berry study details.

Similar measurements were collected using a dust-tracking aerosol monitor. During the initial few minutes of operation, peak readings at each vacuum''s exhaust were taken. Additional area measurements were conducted around head height of five to six feet during vacuuming. The backpack vacuum system was found to be vastly superior to the zone method in measurements of particle retention and air emissions.

Putting Cleaning for Health to Work

So how does a maintenance department or cleaning firm implement cleaning for health into the daily routine?

Adopting a full-force Team Cleaning system is an obvious solution. In Team Cleaning, a worker is given one of four specialties: light-duty, vacuum, restroom or utility. Each worker is routed through a building on a set time-schedule with specific tasks. High-touch and high-traffic areas are cleaned daily, with detail work rotated into the weekly schedule.

Team Cleaning systems can achieve 10,000 sq. ft. an hour, largely due to the ergonomic efficiency of the backpack vacuum. The high-powered, suction-only design of backpacks allows a worker to extract dust from commercial carpets and any hard floor surfaces over three times as fast and 43 percent more effectively than a comparable upright. Multi-filtration backpacks eliminate 99.9+ percent of microscopic allergens down to 1 micron in size, including dust mites, mold, bacteria, cleaning chemical residue and other allergens.

Even without a full-scale cleaning overhaul, reevaluating a cleaning routine can be key for improving overall indoor environmental health. To start, look at high-traffic, high-touch areas. Increase the frequency and efficiency of vacuuming and dusting programs to cover more ground and eliminate microscopic allergens. Wipe down desks, light switches and other frequently touched spots daily. Rotate all areas and detail work into a weekly work plan.

When a cleaning program improves IAQ, the results are in the air. A 2006 Carnegie Mellon review of five separate studies evaluating the impact of IAQ found an average asthma reduction of 38.5 percent in buildings with improved IAQ.

Clean for health to improve efficiency, productivity and the air workers, staff and occupants breathe in.


Jessica Holmes is a freelance writer based in Boise, Idaho, and a PR consultant for ProTeam The Vacuum Company (www.pro-team.com).