By Rochelle Davis, President and CEO, Healthy Schools Campaign
Each school day, more than 60 million students and staff attend our nation’s schools, representing 20 percent of the American population. Unfortunately, half of them are being exposed to polluted indoor air, including lead, asbestos, chemical fumes, pesticides, molds, and other toxins at those schools. A green cleaning program can help reduce these harmful exposures—from reducing carbon emissions to boosting test scores, green cleaning comes with a long list of benefits.
Green Cleaning Helps Students Stay Healthy and Ready to Learn
Children are more susceptible to the effects of cleaning chemicals and other toxins because they are still developing and they behave differently than adults—rolling around on the floor of a classroom, for example. “Children are not little adults,” says Maryann Suero, an environmental health scientist with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 5.
In addition, those chemicals and toxins can have a big effect on students’ abilities to attend and be engaged at school. On average, students across the country missed 14 million days of school because of asthma, which is often exacerbated by poor indoor air quality. Research shows a clear link between poor indoor air quality and sick students and staff, which leads to lower academic and occupational performance.
At Clarke County School District (CCSD) in Athens, Georgia, Kimberly Thomas, executive director, plant services and custodial operations, and the district’s director of school nursing noticed a growing trend in the number of district students on allergy prevention plans. They made a promise to do whatever they could to eliminate asthma triggers in the school environment. Air fresheners and products with heavy volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were completely eliminated and all equipment now has HEPA filters.
Those changes led to bigger moves, like a switch to cleaning products that have third-party certifications and a pilot program for engineered water that will eventually eliminate the need for chemicals in most applications. “We say we are cleaning for health,” says Thomas. “But our other mission is to provide the best learning environment possible. If we can make kids healthy and reduce their absenteeism, then the teachers can work with them to improve test scores.”
Instituting a green cleaning program also positively affects the custodial staff. On average, 6 percent of school custodians who are injured on the job every year are injured due to chemical exposure. Custodial staff are particularly susceptible to health problems from frequent exposure to toxic cleaning chemicals and unsafe equipment. Green cleaning products and techniques can reduce the risk of illness and injuries. “A little-known fact is that school employees have high rates of work-related asthma and other respiratory disorders,” says Darryl Alexander, the Director of Health and Safety of the American Federation of Teachers. “Green cleaning products and practices are designed to minimize troubling exposures and reduce respiratory problems among the workforce. Green cleaning is truly a winning strategy for promoting worker and occupant health.”
Green Cleaning Saves Money
One of the biggest benefits to a green cleaning program that is not always spoken about is the huge cost savings it can yield. Many with experience in the field have already moved far away from the old, mistaken belief that green cleaning costs more. Unfortunately, those who are not as familiar with green cleaning—and many in positions to approve or reject green cleaning purchases—are still misinformed.
Pat Pizzo, the assistant superintendent for business and finance at East Meadow School District in Westbury, NY, has firsthand experience with cost savings. In fact, his department has been able to save more than $365,000 (and $135,000 in 2016 alone) by making the switch to green-certified products and equipment.
Part of Pizzo’s award-winning green cleaning program is detailed and strategic program assessment, which includes analyzing the amount of money saved so that he can convey those numbers to those in charge at the district level. “We needed to quantify our program to see if it was more or less expensive,” says Pizzo. “When you do a system looking at efficacy, first you find that cost savings are just a byproduct. If you change the process and do it properly, this form of green cleaning is drastically cheaper than traditional cleaning.”
One of the key ways East Meadow School District was able to reduce costs was to explore, test, and implement procedures and equipment that eliminated chemicals whenever possible. They started with floor care, eliminating the need for chemicals and significantly reducing labor costs by switching to diamond pads and ionized water. They completely eliminated the use of stripper and buffing chemicals, so that was a line item that they could cut off the budget right away. A change to a greener floor wax eliminated buildup on baseboards, cutting that item out of the budget and extending the amount of time in between waxing by two additional years.
How to Get Started with Green Cleaning in Schools
Green cleaning can be a simple solution, not one that overwhelms or bogs you down. Green cleaning is about a simple product list, simple techniques, and a simple goal: cleaning for health and the environment. We have developed five simple steps that anyone can take to start or enhance a green cleaning program at their school called the 5 Steps to Green Cleaning in Schools.
The first step to a green cleaning program is understanding what your school’s most basic cleaning needs are, which is usually keeping dirt out of your school. Successful green cleaning programs first and foremost aim to prevent dirt and other contaminants from entering the building in the first place. This step offers simple and inexpensive measures that can keep your school clean and save time, money, and effort down the road.
The second step is selecting and adding green cleaning products. The green cleaning product marketplace has come a long way in a short buy legit ambien period of time. Today, there are plenty of affordable and accessible products, as well as reliable third-party certifications to help assess products. Compared to traditional products, green cleaning products minimize health risks, reduce pollution, and conserve resources.
Equipment selection is a huge part of a green cleaning program. Today’s tools can reduce chemical use and increase productivity. Improvements in ergonomics should also help custodians avoid injuries. Even though green equipment may initially cost slightly more than traditional options, schools can actually save money on labor and health care costs in the long run. When purchasing green equipment and supplies, schools should consider three factors: appropriateness, effectiveness, and usability.
The way your staff cleans should contribute to your green cleaning goals of healthier people and a healthier environment. Thus, a major component of your cleaning procedures is training. You can purchase all the latest green products and technologies on the market but if your staff is not trained properly, it will not matter. As you begin to green your cleaning procedures, you will want to consider how your procedures are helping to reduce general health risks and environmental impact.
Everyone plays a role in maintaining a healthy environment—students, teachers, administrators, custodians, and even unions and outside contractors. A successful green cleaning program promotes stewardship and demonstrates a school’s commitment to reducing its environmental footprint. You will need all stakeholders to play a role for a successful program, roles that go beyond the custodial staff and facility operators.
Schools looking to start a green cleaning program can download our 5 Steps to Green Cleaning in Schools for more detailed guides to each of the steps mentioned above.
How to Overcome Common Obstacles
The benefits to green cleaning in schools are evident to those of us who care about student health, but that does not mean that implementing an effective green cleaning program is without its challenges. We engage with school facility directors on a regular basis and have done some research on how to overcome what they tell us are the three most common obstacles they face.
Many school facility directors bemoan a lack of support, engagement, or consideration from those in charge of their schools or cleaning programs. One of the ways we are helping to change this is by creating more specific guides for key parties that will help you advocate for green cleaning to those in positions of power at your school. Remember to always think big. Our Green Cleaning Advocacy Handbook provides in-depth advice on how to advocate for green cleaning legislation in your district, municipality, or state. We also have a comprehensive guide to existing policy available on our website.
Change is always scary, and green cleaning is no exception. School facility directors cite reasons that come from a fear of failure, a lack of knowledge, and a perception that the change would require too much work or money. Many wish they had a clear road map to green cleaning in schools that could help explain the benefits to those who felt apprehensive about the change. We could not agree more! So we went ahead and provided a simple and compelling road map on our website called Green Cleaning Starts Here. This provides some statistics that make a clear case for green cleaning from health, financial, and environmental standpoints. It lays out some simple changes that can be made and outlines our 5 Steps to Green Cleaning in Schools. Share it with the next person who tells you “No.”
Many also tied that fear of change to a lack of information. Community members, stakeholders, and even staff members often simply do not know what green cleaning means or how it can benefit them. Stakeholders can mistake the cost of green cleaning, its effectiveness, and health benefits to be significant challenges. One of the ways we are hoping to overcome this lack of knowledge is through peer-to-peer sharing of knowledge and mentorship opportunities. Our Leadership Council, which is comprised of leaders of award-winning green cleaning programs who partner with aspiring green cleaning programs to guide, educate, and mentor through the process, is a personalized resource for educating stakeholders.
Once they overcome these challenges, schools see huge benefits from implementing green cleaning programs. We have mentioned the benefits—both health- and academic-related—to students and staff and the money that can be saved. By adopting a green cleaning program at your school, you can positively affect the health of each and every person who enters its doors. Transitioning to a green cleaning program is a big change, but it is a change that many schools have already made—with positive results.
Visit www.GreenCleanSchools.org to learn more.
About the Author
Rochelle Davis brings broad experience as a leader in children’s wellness and environmental health to her role as president and CEO of Healthy Schools Campaign (HSC), a national nonprofit organization she founded in 2002. HSC advocates for national, state, and local policies and programs that make schools healthier places to learn and work. She is co-chair of the National Collaborative on Education and Health, a national effort to support schools in creating the conditions of student health. In 2013, she co-chaired the Working Group on Health and Education, which was convened by the Surgeon General. Davis has been instrumental in the development of national healthy school food advocacy initiatives, including the Cooking up Change healthy cooking contest, and school environmental health resources, such as the 5 Steps to Green Cleaning in Schools. She also served as the principal investigator for HSC’s National Institutes of Health-funded Partnership to Reduce Disparities in Asthma and Obesity in Latino Schools. Davis was a member of the EPA’s Committee for the Protection of Children’s Health. She is co-author of the Fresh Choices cookbook, and was the recipient of the Chicago Tribune’s 2007 Good Eating Award.