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Using The 'Zero' Green Measurement Stick

February 01, 2011
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Over the last decade, third-party certification of environmentally preferred cleaning products has significantly impacted the purchasing of green cleaners.

In the beginning, it was a pretty short list of products bearing these third-party certifications, so it was pretty easy to make environmentally preferred purchasing decisions.

Those days are over.

Currently, there are over 380 products with Green Seal certification, over 1,350 products that have EcoLogo certification and over 1,500 cleaning products that are recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency''s (EPA) Design for the Environment (DfE) program.

If the sheer number of options isn''t confusing enough, it becomes more befuddling when "green certified" products list "hazardous ingredients" in their Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS).

So, how can you make a more informed purchase decision if your goal is to buy healthier, safer cleaning products?

There is a little used measurement tool on MSDS sheets called the hazard rating or Hazardous Materials Identification System (HMIS).

The HMIS uses color-coding and numeric ratings to indicate the degree of the product''s hazard in the areas of health, flammability and reactivity.

A rating of "0" indicates "minimal hazard," with a rating of "4" indicating "severe hazard."

A fourth component of the HMIS uses letters to designate the protective equipment that is suggested during handling and use.

Health Rating: Blue

The health rating of the HMIS refers to the product''s effect on one''s health.

It is the first listing on the HMIS and is color-coded in blue.

According to the American Coatings Association, the developers of the HMIS, the health rating is based on "objective criteria inherent to the material, such as its toxicity — oral/dermal lethal dose to kill 50 percent of targets (LD50), lethal concentration to kill 50 percent of targets (LC50) — and its ability to cause skin and eye irritation."

Products that pose no significant risk to health earn a "0" rating, while a "1" rating indicates a slight hazard described as "irritation or possible minor, reversible injury."

If a product has a "4" health rating, it is because "life-threatening, major or permanent damage may result from single or repeated over-exposures."

For a full description of the HMIS criteria, visit

Flammability Rating: Red

This component indicates how easily a product will ignite.

This rating is particularly significant to facility managers wanting to steer clear of any product that could breach security by being used as an accelerant or explosive.

Many aerosols fall into a "2" or "3" rating, with the latter designating a product that will "ignite under almost all normal temperature conditions."

A "4" rating is the most hazardous and products "may ignite spontaneously with air."

Look carefully at the aerosols in your closet, as some will have a "4" flammability rating.

Reactivity Rating: Yellow Or Orange

The reactivity or physical hazard component indicates the potential of the product to release violent energy under various conditions: Fire, contact with water, high temperature, high pressure or proximity of activating substances.

A "0" rating indicates the product will remain "stable even under fire conditions, and … will not react with water."

A "4" rating is designated for materials that are "readily capable of detonation or explosive decomposition at normal temperatures and pressures."

Personal Protection Rating: White

This category is designated with letters that correspond to appropriate equipment to wear while using the product.

If there is a rating, it is most often an "A," "B" or "X."

"A" indicates use of safety goggles, "B" means use of both goggles and gloves and "X" means consult your supervisor for special directions.

If there is no special equipment needed, this bar is left blank.

Using HMIS In Purchase Decisions

Your goal should be to find products that contain as many HMIS "zeros" as possible, yet still deliver the performance you need.

You might be surprised with the HMIS ratings on some of your current "green" products.

As an example, we randomly selected an EcoLogo-certified ready to use (RTU) glass cleaner that is also recognized under the EPA''s DfE program.

We were surprised to see its HMIS rating is 1, 2, 0, with a personal protection rating of "B."

Similarly, there is a very popular Green Seal-certified hydrogen peroxide cleaner with a HMIS for the end-user dilution of 1, 0, 1, B.

The same manufacturer has a Green Seal-certified glass cleaner with a RTU dilution that has a HMIS of 1, 0, 0, B.

Although the criteria for HMIS is pretty clear from a measurement standpoint, one manufacturer of hydrogen peroxide products notes its products are evaluated by an outside consulting firm.

"By using an outside firm to review and establish our HMIS information, we have removed any issues of subjectivity to the process," notes Patrick Stewart, chief executive officer (CEO) of EnvirOx LLC.

He also points out that "there are much broader considerations concerning the ''greenness'' of a product, so we would suggest that HMIS be used for safety evaluation only."

Dyes And Dangers

If a product has a color, it probably contains artificial dye.

Some manufacturers will choose to list a dye under Section II of the MSDS, but are not required to provide any details.

Synthetic dyes are created in a laboratory and are made primarily from petroleum by-products and coal tar.

Coal tars can contain benzene and naphthalene.

Benzene is a known human carcinogen and naphthalene has been linked to cancer in animal tests.

Exposure to large amounts of naphthalene may damage or destroy red blood cells.

Scents And Cents

Synthetic fragrance oils are quite often used in cleaning products because they are less pricey than essential oils, which are made from the actual pressing of the plant.

Synthetic oils are derived by chemical reactions and created in the form of synthetic compounds.

As an example, according to the British Essential Oil Association, artificial lavender fragrance oil can contain amyl cinnamic aldehyde, which is manufactured from benaldehyde, a possible carcinogen.

Lavender fragrance oil can also contain camphor, which can cause irritation to eyes, skin and the respiratory system.

An artificial fragrance may or may not be listed under Section II of the MSDS.

Sometimes, they are listed on the product''s ingredient list as "fragrance" or "fragrance oil."

Although essential oils are more expensive than synthetic alternatives, you can find cleaning products that contain them for fragrance and cleaning benefits.

"We reject the use of synthetic ingredients and actually go one step further by sourcing organic suppliers for our essential oils," points out Luke Bobek, director of industrial and institutional sales for Earth Friendly Products. "Many of our essential oils are recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program."

The USDA National Organic Program assures consumers that products are grown with all natural substances, as all synthetic substances are prohibited.

To earn this certification, the organic crops are raised without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers.

Although the company''s products are made with plant-based products and essential oils, Bobek is quick to point out that using quality ingredients does not translate into more expensive cleaning products.

"With over two decades of plant-based manufacturing experience, we''ve learned how to use these pure ingredients, yet hold down the cost," Bobek clarifies. "Most of our products are actually less expensive than the comparable non-green brands."

The next time you evaluate your green cleaning products, consider the additional information contained in the HMIS ratings, the color of the product and the source of its fragrance.

Virginia Petru is president of Petru & Associates, a provider of marketing and public relations services. She has been involved in the JanSan industry for over 15 years and has witnessed many advances in environmental cleaning technology.

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