Dangerous Lesson: Chemical Spill Highlights Need for Green Cleaning

February 25, 2008 | Written By:

by Claris Olson, HSC Environmental Health Specialist

The Chicago Tribune recently reported a cleaning chemical spill at a school in Country Club Hills, Ill. The spill sent 24 students and two teachers to the hospital; 400 students were evacuated and the school was temporarily closed.

Unfortunately, it is only through accidents like these, the ones that make headline news, that we’re alerted to the significant hazards of conventional cleaning chemicals. 

Luckily, we do not see evacuations caused by chemical spills happening on a regular basis; but that doesn’t mean that the indoor air is clean or healthy. 

We have come to associate the smell of bleach, ammonia or pine with what we think of as “clean.” But the reality is these and most conventional cleaning chemicals are toxic. Even when used properly, they are respiratory, skin, and or eye irritants.  Some conventional cleaning products can cause cancer and are suspected reproductive toxins.  Mixing chemicals can produce a poisonous gas, as it did at the school that had to be evacuated in Country Club Hills.

Advances in product formulations have resulted in the development of green cleaning chemicals that are cost-comparable and just as effective as conventional cleaners but are safer for health and the environment.

Using these green cleaning products protects students and staff from emergencies such as the chemical spill; it also protects them on a daily basis from respiratory irritants (particularly important to the millions of children who suffer from asthma) and the cumulative effects of chemicals linked to long-term health problems. The best way to ensure the product is safe is to use third party certified products such as Green Seal, Environmental Choice, or Design for the Environment.  And always follow the manufacturer’s directions.

In light of cases like these, green cleaning seems like such a no-brainer that it makes you wonder why everyone is not using green cleaning practices. Perhaps the best explanation came from Superintendent Wendell Chu of New York, who explained that school administrators have so many pressing issues to work on every day that it took a law requiring green cleaning for him to realize how much sense it makes. With the law in place, he was able to make green cleaning a priority. 

As green cleaning laws are being implemented in Illinois and New York, students and staff will no longer be facing the daily adverse health effects associated with conventional cleaning chemicals and will be safe from the danger of emergency situations such as a chemical spill.

In the other 48 states without green cleaning legislation, we can provide tools such as The Quick and Easy Guide to Green Cleaning in Schools to help facility managers understand the need for green cleaning not only for the wellbeing of their students and staff, but also for an effective, affordable and sustainable approach to cleaning that does not harm the environment.

Everyone deserves to send their children to a school where students can breathe the air without having to worry about it making them sick.  Even though green cleaning in schools is not required by law everywhere, breathing clean air in school should be every child’s right.

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