by Linda Rutsch, Outreach and Education Coordinator, Safer Choice Program, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
What is green cleaning and why is it important?
Healthy school environments are essential to fostering supportive learning conditions for students. Here at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we strive to promote best practices in cleaning and maintenance that can contribute to healthier school environments for students, staff, and visitors. Instituting a green cleaning program can help you maintain a healthy and safe learning environment, which is important for attendance and academic performance. As you know, healthy kids learn better.
Many conventional cleaning products on the market today may contain potentially harmful chemicals that are a source of indoor air pollution, so it is important to know what to look for when choosing cleaners. Indoor air can be more polluted than outdoor air; in fact, indoor levels of pollutants may be two to five times – and occasionally more than 100 times – higher than outdoor levels. Fumes from cleaning products can linger long after they have been applied, which can exacerbate asthma and expose students and staff to potentially harmful substances. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of the leading causes of school absenteeism is asthma, resulting in 14 million missed school days annually across the country.[i]
Presidential Executive Order 13101 defines green cleaning as ‘cleaning to protect health without harming the environment.’ EPA encourages you to practice green cleaning through the selection of environmentally preferable cleaners, use of alternative cleaning methods, and changes in facility design and maintenance operations.
Green cleaning products and practices help minimize the potential for harmful effects on human health and the environment without reducing cleaning efficacy. Using green cleaning products, such as those certified to carry the EPA Safer Choice label, is a vital component of any green cleaning program. Safer Choice (formerly known as Design for the Environment) is the EPA label for certifying safer chemical-based products. Leveraging EPA’s more than 40 years of experience assessing chemical safety, the Safer Choice program is a certification and labeling program for products that schools use, such as multi-purpose cleaners, hand soaps, whiteboard cleaners, athletic field paints, floor cleaners, window cleaners, and more.
To be eligible to display the Safer Choice label, a product must comply with EPA’s Safer Choice Standard, which is green chemistry-focused and grounded in stringent human health and environmental criteria. Safer Choice evaluates *all* intentionally added ingredients in a product – no exceptions, no de minimis – against safer ingredient pass/fail criteria and thresholds. We work to ensure products with our label are safer for your families, schools, and the environment while still meeting performance standards.
When green cleaning products were introduced many years ago, many were not very effective. One reason is that companies simply removed ingredients of concern, but did not replace those ingredients with chemicals of similar functionality. Through innovation by product and chemical manufacturers and informed substitution (a key idea behind the Safer Choice program), manufacturers are able to use safer, high functioning ingredients in products. As a result, green cleaning products can perform well and be safer.
One challenge for green cleaning is how to educate your facilities managers and custodial staff that greener cleaners are effective. Manufacturers of all EPA Safer Choice- labeled products must provide performance testing to demonstrate they work effectively and meet their users’ needs. They can do this in a number of ways: by comparison testing with a market leading product, by using a standard test method (such as ASTM), or using a non-standard test protocol in the case where standard methods are not available or not applicable.
Custodial staff are key to a successful green cleaning program. They need to be confident that the products they use are effective so they can do their jobs properly. Using products with a Safer Choice label will provide that level of assurance. A leader of the award-winning green cleaning program in Howard County, Maryland makes the important point of recognizing that custodial staff are the school’s ambassadors of health and key to that building’s success and health. At Safer Choice, we could not agree more.
What does the Safer Choice label mean for green cleaning?
Choosing the right cleaning products and practices is critical for maintaining a healthy school environment and protecting the health of children and staff. The chemicals found in some cleaning products can cause health problems, including eye, nose, and throat irritation and headaches; trigger asthma attacks; and may lead to serious long-term health conditions. Using green cleaning products and practices can help to avoid these health effects, improve indoor air quality, and increase the lifespan of facilities.[ii]
That is why the Safer Choice program is here to help you identify products with ingredients that help protect the health of your students, teachers, staff, visitors, and the environment. Products that carry the Safer Choice label have had every ingredient carefully evaluated by EPA scientists for human health and environmental considerations. When you see the Safer Choice label on a product you can be confident that the manufacturer has met the rigorous criteria of the Safer Choice program. Not only that, the label carries the full faith and force of the federal government. Companies must make their product formulary commitments in a signed agreement with EPA. Any entity not complying with its obligations and misusing the label is committing fraud and could face federal prosecution.
So what differentiates Safer Choice-labeled products from conventional ones? Among other safer attributes, labeled products cannot contain the following:
- Carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive or developmental toxicants
- Persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals (PBTs)
- VOCs (volatile organic compounds) above allowed levels
- Toxic elements, including certain heavy metals
- Ingredients classified as skin or respiratory sensitizers
- Packaging with BPA and phthalates
Criteria like these ensure that Safer Choice-labeled products are safer for human and environmental health than traditional cleaning products.
Why is green cleaning a best practice for schools to adopt?
Using green cleaning products and best practices may help mitigate some of the negative health effects attributed to the use of conventional cleaning products in the following ways[iii]:
- Protecting the health of students, who are more vulnerable to chemicals than adults. Children breathe 4 to 6 times more air than adults and they breathe closer to the ground where pollutants in air tend to concentrate.
- Protecting the health of custodial staff who have frequent interactions with cleaning chemicals.
- Children’s hand to mouth behavior contributes to the intake of dust containing toxic chemicals from cleaning products, pesticides, furnishings, and other sources.
- Research has found that when physical environments in classrooms are improved, learning is enhanced for children.
- Cleaning removes allergens and other irritants that can contribute to the onset of asthma within exposed students.
- American Poison Control Centers report that traditional household cleaning products are common causes of poisoning in children.
As it stands, manufacturers of non-Safer Choice-labeled products are not required to divulge their product ingredients. This makes it very hard for a school purchaser or consumer to know what chemicals are in products and to make informed decisions.[iv] Safer Choice, however, advances transparency and informed decision-making by requiring that labeled products disclose all intentionally added ingredients–either on the product label, on the company website, or at a toll-free number. Disclosure also enhances public awareness of the safer ingredients in labeled products and promotes dialogue on the value of safer chemistry in cleaning products.
How can I start a green cleaning program in my own school?
Here are some of the key elements of an effective green cleaning program according to the U.S. EPA State School Environmental Health Guidelines:[v]
- Establish a green cleaning and preventive maintenance plan for your school.
- Involve teachers, administrators, purchasing officials, custodians, parents, and student representatives in designing and implementing the plan.
- Select cleaning products with positive environmental attributes (i.e., low or no VOC emissions, no potential carcinogens) such as U.S. EPA’s Safer Choice. When purchasing neutral cleaners, glass cleaners, bathroom cleaners, and disinfectants, consider products that have high dilution rates, are designed to reduce waste, and have lower end-use costs.
- Avoid using cleaning products containing fragrances that might trigger asthma symptoms, or those with strong odors.
- Involve facilities and custodial staff in the selection and testing of cleaning products.
- Educate facilities and custodial staff on the attributes and health benefits of greener products to encourage adoption and sustained use.
- Incorporate green cleaning concepts and practices into your preventive maintenance plan. For example:
- Spray cleaning cloths with product rather than the surface to be cleaned;
- Use microfiber cleaning cloths and other tools to minimize the amount of cleaning products used; and
- Purchase products as concentrates and dilute on site.
- Train facilities and custodial staff on cleaning practices and policies, as well as procedures for handling a chemical spill.
- Conduct an inventory of cleaning products. Identify and properly dispose of products that are outdated, unknown, or not needed.
- Maintain a standardized list of approved and disapproved cleaning products at the school district level. Such a list will ensure all schools in the district use the same cleaning products and techniques and are cleaned to the same standard.
- Prohibit teachers and school staff from bringing in cleaning chemicals and products that have not been approved for district and school building use.
Safer Choice has developed a fact sheet for schools. Please share this information with your community. The fact sheets will be translated into Spanish; until then, please direct your Spanish-speakers to https://espanol.epa.gov/saferchoice.
For more information on the U.S. EPA Safer Choice program, go to: https://www.epa.gov/saferchoice, and to find Safer Choice-labeled products please visit our product page. There are more than 2,000 products with the Safer Choice label; about 650 are in the consumer space and the rest are in the industrial and institutional space. Of note, more than 100 are certified with the Safer Choice fragrance-free label, the only federal certification of fragrance-free in the marketplace.
About the Author
Linda Rutsch started her federal career as a summer hire with the U.S. Forest Service, conducting stream inventories and fighting forest fires in Colorado.
Linda has worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for 32 years, since graduating from Tulane University with her MBA and MPH in environmental health management. She served as the director of EPA’s award-winning SunWise program, working to develop educational materials, establish partnerships, recruit and support schools, and manage the planning and execution of the budget. Under her leadership, over 58,000 educators joined the program.
Linda joined the Safer Choice outreach team in 2016. Safer Choice recognizes products made with ingredients that are safer for families, workers, communities, and the environment. As part of the Safer Choice team, Linda will be leading outreach in the industrial and institutional sectors, starting with schools.
i Akinbami, L.J. (2006). The state of childhood asthma, United States, 1980–2005. Advance Data from Vital and Health Statistics 381, 1–24.
ii US EPA Voluntary Guidelines for States: Development and implementation of a school environmental health program. http://go.usa.gov/xkQK6 Retrieved September 29th, 2016
iii US EPA Green Cleaning Toolkit for Early Care and Education https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2013-11/documents/green_cleaning.pdf. Retrieved September 27th, 2016
iv US EPA Green Cleaning Toolkit for Early Care and Education https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2013-11/documents/green_cleaning.pdf. Retrieved September 27th, 2016
v US EPA Voluntary Guidelines for States: Development and implementation of a school environmental health program. http://go.usa.gov/xkQK6 Retrieved September 29th, 2016