Cleaning To Safeguard Health

Protect the well-being of facility staff and building occupants with green cleaning principles.

By Alan France
From the June 2017 Issue

The list of health hazards associated with cleaning chemicals is enough to give anyone pause: asthma, cancer, burns and poisoning, allergies, and reproductive problems. Not just a scare tactic used by manufacturers of green cleaning products, these risks have been studied extensively.

green cleaningTraditional cleaning chemicals commonly contain harsh substances that are harmful on contact or when released into the air. Some of the worst offenders include chlorine bleach, ammonia, formaldehyde, fragrance additives, triclosan (found in antibacterial soaps), and even pine- and citrus-based cleaners (which release volatile terpenes).

The people who clean buildings and handle cleaning supplies are the most affected, the most often. They can readily suffer skin and eye irritations, as well as burns from direct contact with products. They can also develop asthma, other lung problems, nose and throat irritation, and headaches from breathing in sprays and fumes.

Yet, building occupants also suffer. The indoor air can remain contaminated for 20 minutes after cleaning due to volatile fumes released as the products are used.(1) As harmful chemicals pass from the lungs into the bloodstream, they affect organs and the nervous system, possibly resulting in dizziness, respiratory distress, and other serious issues. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies have shown that indoor levels of pollutants may be up to 10 times higher than outdoor levels(2)—and given that people in the U.S. spend about 90% of their time indoors(3), it’s clearly beneficial to minimize indoor contaminants via green cleaning.

Asthma. One of the most-cited ailments is asthma, triggered by ingredients in cleaning products (especially sprays), as well as contaminants introduced during manufacturing or that form over a product’s shelf life. Studies have linked on-the-job exposure to cleaning products with the development of asthma in workers who hadn’t ever exhibited signs of the disease.(4) Janitors, health care workers, and teachers are particularly prone to worksite-related asthma due to their frequent exposure to cleaning fumes. Other building occupants are at risk too. School studies have shown fewer student absences from asthma after green cleaning programs have been implemented.

Cancer. When it comes to cancer, more studies are needed, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWP), which states “… it’s clear that many common cleaners contain carcinogenic ingredients or impurities” and that there’s a higher cancer risk “associated with frequent use of air fresheners, especially solid ones, and mold- and mildew-control products.”(5) Based in Washington, DC, EWP is a non-profit organization focused on protecting human health and the environment.

Reproductive And Other Problems. Certain solvents have been banned in Europe and California for their adverse affects on the reproductive system. The EWP reports studies indicating that diethylene glycol monomethyl ether (also called DEGME or methoxydiglycol)—found in some degreasers and heavy-duty cleaners—and other chemicals in the glycol-ether family can damage fertility and/or the developing fetus. Because these solvents are readily absorbed through the skin or via inhalation, they can reach toxic levels in the body. Eczema, rhinitis, and other allergic symptoms have also been attributed to the fumes.(6)

How Green Cleaning Helps

When the building has poor indoor air quality, employers suffer the effects of high health insurance and workers’ compensation costs as well as low worker productivity and frequent sick days. Healthier buildings can boost employee productivity by approximately 15%.(7) Here are some examples where greening the facility made significant differences in occupant health:

  • Improving a commercial building’s indoor environment resulted in the following reductions: communicable respiratory diseases (9-20%), allergies and asthma (18-25%), and non-specific health and discomfort effects (20-50%).(8)
  • Employee sick time in a new “green” headquarters was 5% lower than for all of the company’s other facilities combined.(9)
  • One company reported a 14% decrease in absenteeism after moving into a new green facility.(10)

What Should An Effective Program Entail?

Cleaning Products. Toxic chemicals should be replaced with products that don’t harm people or the environment, yet still clean effectively. Choose cleaning products certified as environmentally safe by a third party, such as Green Seal, a non-profit organization that tests products for health risks, environmental impact, and effectiveness.

It’s important that products contain low VOC levels that emit fewer fumes and are gentler on the facility itself. The right products will reduce health problems associated with allergens, chemical sensitivities, and contaminants, and the good news for facility management is that changing to these products is usually cost neutral.

Equipment. An effective program goes beyond chemicals to include the right equipment: that which uses less energy, minimizes operator fatigue and injury, reduces noise pollution, and cleans quicker and more effectively. Examples include:

  • Carpet & Rug Institute’s Green Label vacuums, with HEPA filters that virtually eliminate particulates (e.g., dust, other allergens)
  • High-speed burnishers with active vacuum attachments that capture fine particles
  • Carpet extractors and automatic floor scrubbers that reduce water consumption and eliminate germs, mold, and fungal growth
  • Microfiber cloths and mops that capture and remove contaminants instead of moving them around
  • Entryway matting systems that trap dirt before it comes into the building, keeping the indoor environment healthier, allowing for the use of gentler cleaning systems, and eliminating wet-floor slips.

Cleaning Practices And Employee Training. Products and equipment are key but green cleaning benefits won’t be fully realized if improper techniques are used. A process as simple as spraying glass cleaner on a cloth rather than on a mirror reduces airborne vapor particles that irritate lungs. Proper dwell time of a product increases its effectiveness, and using a designated mop (color-coded, for example) in bathrooms reduces cross contamination. Quick attention to spills can minimize the need for harsher chemicals once a stain has set in.

Do janitors know each product’s intended use, including proper dilution with water? Do they choose the mildest product that will still get a particular task done? Are janitors well trained, well supervised, and evaluated? If outsourced, are they employees of the facility services company or subcontractors? If subcontractors, how are they trained and monitored for quality?

New Technology. Developments in cleaning and related equipment can be used to contribute to healthy cleaning practices.

  • Touchless water and soap dispensers require an investment and proper maintenance, but minimize transfer of germs and reduce water use. “Smart systems” can warn janitors (via a mobile device) of refill needs or mold-causing leaks.
  • The new and improved electrolyzed water systems produce cost-effective, gentle but powerful cleaning solutions onsite. Joellen Feirtag, a Minnesota food scientist, found that the acid water was gentle enough to calm her children’s sunburn, yet it killed pathogens.(11) The self-contained unit uses electricity, minerals, and water to make non-toxic acidic and alkaline solutions.

These handle virtually all of a building’s cleaning needs: carpets, finished floors, glass, painted walls, plastics, metals, stone, and wood laminate furniture. The hypochlorous acid kills the most common bacteria, viruses, and fungi within seconds. University of Georgia research showed that it eliminated Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, and E. Coli.(12) In large facilities, the system can pay for itself in savings.

Beyond Green Cleaning

For the healthiest, most energy efficient building environment, consider a holistic green program. An integrated facility services company can handle a full range of facility needs, with a customized package to take the facility services burden off of in-house staff. And facility executives can be confident they are helping to protect the health of cleaning staff and building occupants alike.


1 Bello A, Quinn MM, Perry MJ, Milton DK. 2010. Quantitative assessment of airborne exposures generated during common cleaning tasks: a pilot study. Environmental Health 9: 76.
2 Environmental Protection Agency. 2008. An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality.
3 Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. 2001. The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): A Resource for Assessing Exposure to Environmental Pollutants.
4. Environmental Working Group. 2016.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Charles Lockwood. 2006. Harvard Business Review. Building the Green Way.
8 William J Fisk. 2000. Health and Productivity Gains from Better Indoor Environments and their Implications for the U.S. Department of Energy.
9 Lockwood. Building the Green Way.
10 Ibid.
11 Marla Dickerson. 2009. LA Times. Simple elixir called a ‘miracle liquid.’
12 Journal of Food Protection, 62:857-860

green cleaningFrance is vice president, quality & sustainability at ABM Industries. Previously, he served as director of sustainability, environmental services for the company. In that role, France was responsible for oversight and deployment of ABM GreenCare®, working with customers on sustainable service programs.

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  1. Need healthy clean air? Transform your walls into a permeant air purification system, by mixing the ionic paint additive by Air-ReNu with paint and applying the blended mixture to the walls of your home or office. One application eliminates offensive odors such as cat urine, smoking odors, pet dander, toxins, and will continue to remain effective for 8 to 12 years

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