Students Taken to Hospital After Chemical Exposure: Remembering Why Green Cleaning and Staff Trainin

March 18, 2011

By Mark Bishop, Vice President of Policy & Communications

Here in Chicago, we got a stark reminder yesterday of why we work on green cleaning programs. The Chicago Sun-Times article “Blue Island school to stay closed after haz-mat situation” reports on a frightening and dangerous situation that resulted from a mistake with harsh cleaning chemicals:

At least 22 pupils, all fourth and fifth-graders, and 10 school staffers, including the principal, were taken to area hospitals from Paul Revere Intermediate School on Thursday afternoon and the building was evacuated…

At least 75 parents showed up to nearby Hart Park in the middle of the afternoon Thursday awaiting word on their children. They had received calls through the school’s emergency response system telling them about the hazmat situation and instructing them to pick their children up at the park on Western Avenue…

A janitor who was mixing bleach and a drain cleaner in a janitor’s closet was the first individual overcome by the fumes, Peloquin said.

And the school remains closed today as facilities staff clean up the hazardous materials and make sure the school is safe for students and staff.

Mixing bleach with other cleaning solutions can cause poisonous gases, as happened in this case. These gases can be extremely dangerous and even fatal. Fortunately, none of the injuries in this case were life-threatening, and the school is expected to re-open next week.

Having said that, one can’t help but get frustrated at the situation and the needless exposure to dangerous chemicals at school. Students and staff don't need to be put in harm's way in order for a school to be clean.

Even in a place like Illinois, where we've had a green cleaning law in place since 2007, we need to continue to emphasize training for custodial staff and processes that minimize the use of harsh chemicals. The school employees who work with cleaning chemicals of any sort need to know how to use them in a way that is safe for students — and safe for the employees themselves. Again, cleaning a school should not put anyone — custodians, students, teachers — in harm's way. Strong training and safe processes simply must be a priority.

Let’s all be thankful that no one was seriously injured in this situation. And we should take from this a renewed effort to take a look at our schools’ cleaning programs and do what we can to make them safer, healthier and greener for our staff, students and teachers.

As a parent, this is a call I never want to receive.