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Green Cleaners: Health Criteria & Best Practices

We provide additional information about what to look for and what to avoid in cleaning products, as well as green cleaning best practices. On the main Green Cleaners page you will also find additional resources and tools for implementing a green cleaning program.

Avoid High-Hazard Cleaning Products

While all types of cleaning products may contain toxic ingredients, the following are considered “high hazard” categories:

  • Aerosol sprays (increase the chance of exposure because their fine mists can easily penetrate the lungs when inhaled)
  • Acid toilet bowl cleaners (are often corrosive)
  • Degreasers/solvents (sometimes contain carcinogens, reproductive toxins, and central nervous system (CNS) depressants)
  • Disinfectants (usually contain asthmagens, some carcinogens)
  • Metal polish (may contain skin, eye and respiratory irritants, and CNS depressants)
  • Graffiti and paint removers (some contain carcinogens, reproductive toxins, CNS depressants and skin irritants)
  • Floor strippers (usually contain asthmagens)

Not all products within each category contain hazardous ingredients. Therefore, it is important to review material safety data sheets (MSDSs) to identify ingredients in the products that you may want to avoid because they pose potential risks, and to determine needed safety equipment. Moreover, not all cleaning products fall within the categories for which there are well-established standards. For those, such as metal polish, graffiti removers and other specialty cleaning products, school districts can avoid:

  • Products in aerosol containers because they can release toxic chemicals in a fine mist, which can easily penetrate the lungs and many of the propellants that are added to these products are hazardous solvents;
  • Products that contain a “Prop 65” warning: “This product contains a chemical (or chemicals) known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.
  • Products with warnings such as “Danger!,” “Flammable,” “Corrosive” or “Vapor Harmful.
  • Heavily scented products, since harmful chemicals can sometimes hide in undisclosed fragrances.

In addition, school districts can look for products that have been reformulated under the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment (DfE) program when the products fall in a category for which no third-party certification exists. These categories include, but are not limited to, graffiti (ink, paint and decal) removers, laundry detergents, dishwashing detergent and other warewashing products, vehicle washing chemicals and dust mop treatments. The DfE program lists some products that are devoid of certain environmentally damaging surfactants such as alkyl phenol ethoxylates (APE), which do not readily biodegrade in the environment. However, it is important to note the DfE program is not a certification program and its standards are not transparent or derived with public input and they may vary company-by-company. So, DfE approval is not considered as reliable as certification by Green Seal or the Canadian Ecologo.

Detailed Health and Safety Criteria for Green Cleaners
Individual schools and districts that want to find products that offer a greater level of protection against chemical ingredients that may harm human health and/or the environment can take the following steps.

1. Look for products that meet Green Seal’s revised GS-37 standard for institutional cleaning products, issued in August 2008. The new standard has added prohibitions of asthmagens (respiratory sensitizers that can bring on new cases of asthma), phthalates (a family of chemicals highly suspected to cause disruption to the body’s hormonal system and in some cases are known to cause reproductive harm), D-Limonene (a skin and respiratory sensitizer) and 2-Butoxyethanol (a chemical that can be easily absorbed through the skin and has been linked to damage to the blood, kidneys and other internal organs.

Products certified for the first time under the revised GS-37 standard will have to meet all the new requirements immediately, while those already certified under the 2006 GS-37 standard will have a year to comply with the new requirements. Green Seal plans to list on its website which certified products meet the new, more stringent standard, so that consumers can easily identify them.

2. Look for Green Seal-certified products that are devoid of asthmagens and other chemicals that can trigger asthma attacks. For products that do not yet meet the new Green Seal standard, school districts can avoid products that contain chemicals on a list of “asthmagens” that has been developed by the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics (AOEC). Some of the asthmagens that are commonly found in cleaning products include:

  • Monoethanolamine (141-43-5)
  • Glacial acetic acid (64-19-7) (This is a concentrated form of the chemical commonly found in vineagar.)

3. Avoid products that contain chemicals that are severe respiratory irritants. Several of these substances have been prohibited in the Canadian Ecologo standard for hard surfaces cleaners since 2005 (it is unclear whether they will be allowed under the new Green Seal standard). These chemicals include:

  • Ammonia (1336-21-6) and Ammonium compounds [Some Green Seal-certified cleaning products list Ammonia or Ammonium hydroxide on their MSDSs]; and
  • Ethylene diaminetetracetic acid (EDTA), Ethylene dinitrilotetracetic acid, Nitrilotriacetic acid, or the salts of these compounds [Some Green Seal-certified cleaning products list Tetrasodium salt ethylenediamine tetraacetate (EDTA) (64-02-8)]

4. Avoid products that have an extreme pH: 2 or less (highly acidic) or 11.5 or more (highly caustic). (This was added to the new Green Seal standard but only for the “as used” formulation.)

5. Avoid products that contain 2-butoxyethanol or other glycol ethers that start with either ethylene glycol or diethylene glycol because they have the ability to be absorbed through skin and cause severe damage to the central nervous system, the immune system, the blood, and/or the kidneys and other internal organs. (The only glycol ether that was added to the Green Seal standard is 2-Butoxyethanol. Therefore, even if a product meets the new GS-37 standard, you may want to do additional screening.)

6. Avoid products containing any phthalates. This class of chemicals is highly suspected of being endocrine (hormone) disruptors. (This was added to the new Green Seal standard.)

7. Look for products packaged as dispensing system concentrates (DSCs) in a container that is designed to automatically dilute and prevent exposure to the concentrate. DSCs are needed because many concentrated cleaning products are packaged in ordinary gallon jugs, which are commonly mixed with water by hand using what is often called the “glug glug” method. The use of conventional packaging can result in unsafe levels of exposure to toxic chemicals, even when green cleaners are used. In fact, a substantial amount of anecdotal evidence shows that custodial staff typically over-concentrate green cleaners because they believe that more is needed than the manufacturer recommends to effectively get their job done. (Note: Most of the exposure limits included in the Green Seal standard are based on an assumption that products will be diluted properly; to ensure that they are, schools can specify that cleaning products be packaged as DSCs in containers that will not allow for the chemicals to be released except when they are hooked up to a hose or dilution equipment).

8. Look for EcoLogo-certified cleaning products that meet its more stringent standard of those “with low potential for environmental illness and endocrine disruption.” Compared to Green Seal-certified products, these products have an additional list of prohibited ingredients, more restrictive standards on toxicity and VOCs, and must be “listed with a recognized environmental health organization as a product not harmful to people prone to environmental illness.” Some EcoLogo products are now becoming available in the U.S.

Green Cleaning Best Practices
The transition to green cleaning products and practices – if done properly – is generally considered to be “cost neutral” and in many cases can even save schools money. In addition, green cleaning is considered to perform equally well, and in many cases products and equipment perform better with fewer health and safety complaints. Several pilot tests conducted in schools and other public facilities have documented the ways in which schools can save money and clean effectively by adopting a variety of green cleaning and purchasing best practices.

1. Follow general cleaning best practices. One of the most important principles of an effective green cleaning program is: first, keep the dirt out. Walk-off mats in doorway entries can prevent mud from being dragged into classrooms. Second, ensure that classrooms are “ready to clean,” and are not overly cluttered. Third, training on proper cleaning and disposal practices can help reduce injury, illness, and pollution. Fourth, proper dilution of products is an important component of safety, as some chemicals that pose little harm when diluted can be dangerous in their concentrated form.  Reading and following labels should be emphasized in all “green cleaning” training workshops. Fifth, update and maintain cleaning equipment. More modern equipment is ergonomically designed, and microfiber mops and HEPA vacuums better collect dirt and dust without recirculation or cross-contamination. Finally, clean first to remove most germs, and then disinfect only in target areas. Also, remember that “clean doesn’t have an odor” – smells of ammonia or fragrances (that may contain phthalates or other toxic compounds) can actually be harmful!

2. Use green products that work as a system. Another practice to consider when selecting green cleaning products is that many are formulated to function as a system. For example, most environmentally preferable floor finishes and strippers are designed to work in tandem since many “green” floor polish removers cannot easily or effectively strip off “non-green” zinc-containing floor polish. Therefore, schools wishing to use Green Seal-certified floor strippers may need to first remove the old floor polish with a conventional stripper before applying a “green” floor polish. They should also pair the new green floor polish with an environmentally preferable floor cleaner, since some conventional floor cleaners contain chemicals typically found in floor strippers (such as Monoethanolamine, which is also an asthmagen). So, if you are judging the “green floor stripper” to perform ineffectively, check whether the old floor finish was stripped and a new “green floor finish” applied that will work with the green stripper and cleaner.

3. Switch from ready-to-use cleaning and disinfecting products to concentrates. In pilot tests conducted in two schools in Honolulu, Hawaii, for example, switching from pre-diluted non-acid bathroom disinfectant (shipped in gallon jugs and 55-gallon drums) to a concentrated restroom disinfectant that is diluted on-site with 64 ounces of water for every one ounce of cleaning product resulted in a 6 to 14-fold cost savings, according to the Green Purchasing Institute. The replacement of ready-to-use cleaning chemicals with concentrated ones not only saves money by dramatically lowering shipping costs, it simultaneously shrinks the carbon footprint of schools by avoiding the transportation of products that contain mostly water.

4. Use metered dilution equipment rather than mixing cleaning chemicals by hand. Although many schools are already using concentrated cleaning products, most are packaged in containers that allow custodial staff to pour these chemicals into mop buckets and spray bottles by hand. Consequently, many are likely to be using more cleaning product than necessary. There is a tremendous amount of anecdotal evidence showing that cleaning products are often over-concentrated by custodial staff either accidentally or intentionally as a way to try to make their job easier – based on the often flawed concept that if a little bit of cleaning product works well, more will work better. The use of dilution equipment that measures and dispenses the correct amount of cleaning product can save schools money. This practice also minimizes the potential for custodial staff and building occupants to become exposed to cleaning chemicals that are spilled or over-concentrated when hand-mixing is used. (Note: there are a variety of types of automatic dilution equipment that schools can use ranging from simple hand-held models to more sophisticated wall- or cart-mounted units. Check with your vendor.)

5. Reduce the number of types and brands of cleaning products used. Some schools try to save money by procuring cleaning products that are the least expensive at the time, often through individual purchase orders or other short-term contracts. Others try out products that are offered as free samples or with temporary discounts by their suppliers. These practices may result in frequent switching of cleaning chemicals, equipment and methods that can end up wasting products and increasing training needs. Products packaged in aerosol containers, should be avoided because they are expensive and can result in increased exposure to cleaning chemicals that are dispersed in a fine mist.

6. Use microfiber mops and cloths. One way to cut the use of disinfectants and other cleaning products while improving performance is by using microfiber mops. Microfiber mops (and cloths) were developed for use in health care facilities as a way to avoid cross-contamination (i.e., spreading germs) when moving from one room to the next. These flat-mop products are peeled off (usually from a Velcro attachment) and laundered when they become dirty, rather than putting them back into the bucket as is done with conventional mops. This makes the cleaning chemicals last longer because they are not poured down the drain whenever the mop bucket water becomes dirty.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, microfiber mops (and cloths) offer many health, safety and economic benefits. For example, field tests have shown that they can: Cut chemical use by about half, Reduce water use by about 95 percent (as well as any energy needed to heat the mop water), Prevent back strain because fewer full buckets need to be lifted and emptied during a cleaning shift and because microfiber mopes are more ergonomically designed than conventional loop mops so less effort is needed to get the job done, and most importantly, Clean more effectively. Several studies have demonstrated that microfiber mops are more effective at removing dirt and avoid cross contamination that typically occurs with traditional mopping methods.

Microfiber cloths can be used wet to clean countertops, desks, mirrors and other surfaces, as well as dry for dusting computer screens, furniture and other surfaces with little or no chemicals.

7. Negotiate long-term contracts for green cleaning products. Soliciting bids for “green” cleaning products and/or services that last at least a year can often present school districts with the best overall value because they can avoid the need to change out mixing equipment and retrain workers every time a new product line is procured. As noted above, buying whatever cleaning products have the lowest upfront price at the time often ends up costing more because it can result in a hodge-podge of different products that will sometimes end up being wasted when new products are procured later.

8. Purchase green cleaners available through State of California contracts. One way school districts in California can quickly and easily access green cleaning products at a relatively low price is to utilize the State of California’s janitorial supplies contract. Because this multi-state contract was subject to a formal bidding process through the Western States Contracting Alliance (WSCA), school districts may be allowed to order products offered on it without going out to bid separately. Schools in other states can check with their own state procurement agency.

The User Instructions for this contract, which were published by the California Department of General Services (the State’s central purchasing agency), state:

The purpose of this WSCA Master Price Agreement is to provide a purchasing vehicle for Janitorial Supplies for all State Agencies and local government agencies, which is any city, county, district or other governmental body [including K-12 schools] empowered to spend public funds per California Public Contract Code Section 12110. While the State of California makes this WSCA Master Price Agreement available to local governmental agencies, each local agency should make its own determination of whether using this WSCA Master Price Agreement is consistent with its procurement policies and regulations.

The primary vendor for this contract is Waxie Sanitary Supply, which offers a full line of “green” cleaning chemicals and equipment, including Green Seal-certified cleaners, floor polish and stripper, hand soaps, and toilet tissue, as well as microfiber mops and cloths, high-efficiency (HEPA) vacuums and more.  Discounts of approximately 45 to 50% are offered on most janitorial supplies listed. Additional discounts are offered to school districts and facilities that commit to becoming “Environmental Partners” as well as for any purchasers who order products online, with scheduled deliveries (which reduce truck trips), or in bulk. Ordering instructions, a price list, and contact information for the State contract administrator can be found here and Waxie representatives and information here. A smaller selection of Green Seal-certified cleaning products are also offered through the State’s Maintenance, Repair and Operations contract with Grainger; for more information see here.

9. Target the use of disinfectants; don't over-use. Many schools use a substantial amount of sanitizing and disinfecting products, which are also sometimes used as a general purpose cleaner. The US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) and California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) register all “antimicrobial” cleaning products as pesticides. A disinfectant is used on hard inanimate surfaces and objects to destroy or irreversibly inactivate infectious fungi and bacteria, but not necessarily their spores. Sanitizers are used to reduce, but not necessarily eliminate, microorganisms from the inanimate environment to levels considered safe as determined by public health codes or regulations. Most of these products are used in restrooms, although they are sometimes used in classrooms, hallways and other areas. Since both disinfectants and sanitizers are designed to kill organisms, it is critical that they be used carefully and diluted properly. Since most germs attach to dirt, surfaces should be thoroughly cleaned before disinfectants are applied – rather than cleaning and disinfecting simultaneously. And the products must be left on for the required dwell time to disinfect properly. Disinfectants are commonly over-used. Best is to clean first and target disinfectants only in areas that require it.

The US EPA does not allow registered sanitizers and disinfectants to be labeled or marketed as less-toxic or otherwise environmentally preferable products, although the Canadian government does allow this. There are a handful of Green Seal-certified products, most of which contain hydrogen peroxide, which are co-labeled as an EPA-registered sanitizer or disinfectant. This means that the same product has two different labels: one indicating that it is a registered disinfectant or sanitizer and another containing the Green Seal logo (but EPA won’t allow both claims on the same bottle or marketing material).

When selecting disinfectants, you should try to avoid products containing chlorine bleach and quaternary ammonium compounds (“quats”). Bleach is considered hazardous because it is corrosive. It generally contains sodium hypochlorite and sodium hydroxide, which according to the MSDS for a common bleach product, “may cause severe irritation or damage to eyes and skin.” When bleach is mixed with acids (like vinegar) or other cleaners (like ammonia) or other ingredients in cleaners (like surfactants or fragrances), compounds react and can generate chlorinated volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Mixing chlorine bleach and ammonia together produces a toxic chlorine gas that can be fatal. Chlorine that enters wastewater can also contribute to the formation of chlorinated compounds, some of which are probable human carcinogens. Quaternary ammonium compounds have been linked to asthma and hypersensitivity. Peroxide-based disinfectants and effective cleaning methods, mentioned above, may be adequate for many situations; however, schools may still need to use other disinfectants for specific applications, such as killing a blood-borne pathogen, containing a MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus , or staph) outbreak, or complying with specific state or local regulations. Know the laws and guidelines in your district.

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