Q&A with Green Cleaning Advocate Deb Stafford

April 16, 2012

Here at HSC, we are always happy to meet new people who are making a difference for kids’ health by promoting green cleaning in schools! Deb Stafford is one such champion for kids health. We first met Deb when her school was recognized with the 2010-11 Green Cleaning Award for Schools and Universities. She later served as a presenter in our Green Cleaning Webinars series. Deb leads the green cleaning efforts at Green Chimneys, a specialized school for students with emotional and behavioral challenges that focuses on animal-assisted therapies. Green Chimneys’ 150-acre campus encompasses more than 30 buildings, a farm and a swimming pool! Today we have a Q&A with Deb about how she brings a green cleaning approach to this one-of-a-kind school environment.

How does green cleaning work at your school?

We’ve been here for 60 years. We’ve grown from a small residential school treatment center to having over 88 residents and 200 students in our school. We have a farm and a gym and a pool and lots of bathrooms. So that was a pretty big challenge.

The first thing we did, once I took over this division, was purchased several hundred square feet of walk-off mats, made from recycled rubber and plastic bottles. This was to keep the dirt out because we’re outside, we have a farm, there are more than 30 buildings here, we do animal-assisted therapy and horseback riding, so we have horses and cows and sheep and chickens and rabbits. The kids are outside a lot and they have to do a lot of walking from one program to another; everything is not located just in the school. There’s about 150 acres and they get around pretty well. With the mats, you don’t have as much dust or as much dirt on the floor. The matting is really important. It’s important to have the right kind of matting. Being that we have all of those different places, our campus is very diverse and our cleaning strategies are diverse as well. 

We use a few specific green cleaners. The major thing that is common among all of the campus buildings is the closed-loop dilution system. That way, the proper cleaner for that particular location is set at the proper dilution rate. With this system, we are down to using only four different chemicals. 

We have a serious infection control plan and the way we do that is by doing a lot of cleaning first. If you keep the areas clean, especially by always wiping down surfaces, they are less likely to harbor all of those germs. We’ve been buying things in bulk, so the pricing is pretty good. Using green products, we have lowered our purchasing by 20 percent, and that’s from the chemicals alone. 

Has there been a positive response?

We did a survey with people at the school about how they like the green cleaning products and the procedures, because a lot of it is also procedural. If you don’t use every cleaning product right, then it defeats the whole purpose. You either use it too diluted, which is not cleaning or disinfecting, or you use it too strong, where more chemicals doesn’t make it better. Too much of a good thing is toxic. We’ve eliminated bleach. We use a hospital grade disinfectant to clean up any areas that need specific cleaning, like if a child gets sick or there is a blood spill or something like that. We’ve had good comments from the parents. We have a lot of kids with asthma and the burden on asthma has been reduced quite a bit with green cleaning.  

A lot of my staff, when I took over this department, had been here a long time. There was a lot of old school cleaning, with the bleach. It was hard for me to get through the detailed procedures and what they could and could not use. I changed our buying strategy, so if we don’t have glass cleaner with ammonia, we can’t use it. It’s taken a little while for them to get on board, but I think that winning the green cleaning award has been a nice pat on the back for their efforts, knowing that what they’re doing is with good reason. We’re not only trying to protect the kids, but also the people that use these things too. Who wants to breathe bleach in all day? There has not been an increase in sick days; if anything, there has been a reduction. 

Having the training made a big difference. We train with a focus on using equipment safely. We have a consultant who is like my right hand man. They do a lot of hands-on training and hands-on practice. They visit a couple times a month to make sure that processes are being followed. And the custodians and janitors are invested in their work and they care about the outcomes of their work. They learn to be experts, so they share what they know. If they know why they’re using something, what the benefits are, they are more inclined to use it and tell others what the benefits are. 

What challenges have you seen? 

We are a special education school, so we have students from lots of different districts. There are hard-to-manage behavioral problems, emotional problems. A few years ago there was a MRSA outbreak here. But it didn’t go very far because I had already been using MRSA kill claim products in the locker rooms and the bathrooms and wiping the tables. When the health department came in, I was happy to show them. It’s as green as it can be. But because of the residents, we had to step it up a little bit. It’s important to have the right product. And that was one of the big questions we have is how to deal with keeping things green and keeping things sanitized and keeping infectious disease down. Prevention, education, hand-washing, those kind of things.

I think having the right equipment is important, having the right training is important. Giving staff, teachers, parents the opportunity to share what they like and don’t like was really helpful. We get a lot of different kinds of feedback. 

What is one thing that you wish people knew about green cleaning?

I think that learning the dilution systems and how one product can do a couple of different things, depending on how it is diluted: like how one product can clean the floor and clean the rest of the bathroom with a little higher dilution. It’s definitely not more expensive, it is cost effective. I’m a heavy duty recycler, so I like using less containers, recyclable containers. Most green cleaning chemicals are very concentrated, so you’re not paying to transport water. 

Thanks to Deb for sharing her insight and experiences with green cleaning.To learn more, be sure to check out HSC’s Quick & Easy Guide to Green Cleaning in Schools, available free online at www.greencleanschools.org