Science of Green: New Research Documents Benefits of Green Cleaning

November 05, 2009

By Mark Bishop, Deputy Director

When Healthy Schools Campaign began working on green cleaning issues in
2003 we had a simple premise: clean for health, reduce the use of nasty
chemicals, and we'll have a healthier learning environment as a result.
I must admit that we took what I consider a very logical and acceptable
leap of faith. (I mean, it doesn't take much to think that if you
choose to not put contaminants in a room, you'll have a room with fewer
contaminants in it.)

Fortunately, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has put some science to our premise. The group just came out with a fantastic report
that gives us some concrete research documenting the benefits of green
cleaning. When you clean a classroom with a “green cleaner,” do you end
up with fewer toxic chemicals in the room? The answer is a resounding
YES.

In
short, EWG tested several “green cleaners” as defined by Green Seal or
EcoLogo; their testing showed that these products cleaned effectively
while polluting the indoor environment significantly less. Actually five times less:

  • Green cleaners released a lower
    overall number of measurable air contaminants. The conventional
    cleaners analyzed produced three to five times more air contaminants
    than green general purpose cleaners.
  • Green cleaners produced lower levels of one
    important class of air pollutants, volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
    Total VOC levels measured from conventional general purpose cleaners
    were six times higher than their green counterparts.

http://www.ewg.org/files/2009/10/school-cleaners/general-purpose.png

Of course, what you also see in the graph above is that green cleaning
isn't perfect, so there's still room for improvement. From my
perspective, there are two take-aways here:
First, green cleaning isn't just about switching out traditional chemicals for “green” chemicals. It's
also about processes, procedures, and training. Yet this study only
looked at swapping out traditional products with green products. The
greenest chemical in the world isn't very green if it's over-used. Even
better than using green chemicals alone is also finding ways to reduce
overall chemical use, such as:
  • Stopping dirt before it gets into the building (by putting proper mats at doorways, for example)
  • Adapting processes to reduce the need for chemicals (microfiber cloths can do wonders if used properly) 
  • Using innovative technologies that reduce or eliminate chemicals all together (have you heard of the Active Ion or the Tennant Ec-H20?) 

This means that the report may actually over-estimate the amount of
contaminants one would be exposed to when a classroom is cleaned in a
green cleaning program. (Put another way: the report may under-estimate
the benefits of a green cleaning program as it would be used in real
life.) Those properly implementing a green cleaning program not only
use healthier chemicals, but also identify ways to use fewer chemicals.

Second, “green” chemicals can still get greener.
Will there be a point when we can create cleaning chemicals that
produce zero contaminants? It may be possible, but we're not there yet.
We still need to work with manufacturers, regulatory agencies, elected
officials and school leaders to strive for continual improvement. We
all have unintentional and very intimate day-to-day interactions with
cleaning products and their residues. Because of this, we need to make
sure they are as healthy as possible — and continue to get healthier.
But most significantly, this research shows how important green cleaning programs are. Green cleaning is very effective, it doesn't have to cost more, and this report documents that green cleaning clearly creates healthier environments.

Rarely in this world can we say we have a win-win-win situation. This is one of them.

To learn more about green cleaning in schools, check out HSC's free Quick and Easy Guide to Green Cleaning in Schools.

And thanks to the EWG for such a great and health-promoting report!