The following discussion primarily addresses hazards associated with cleaning product ingredients. The actual risks from these chemicals at typical exposure levels are often uncertain, and in many cases are probably low. Regardless of the expected risk levels, however, reducing the intrinsic hazard of a product is a desirable pollution prevention objective as part of decisions that also take into account other important product attributes.
- Cleaning products are released to the environment during normal use through evaporation of volatile components and rinsing down the drain of residual product from cleaned surfaces, sponges, etc. Janitorial staff and others who perform cleaning can be exposed to concentrated cleaning products. However, proper training and use of a Chemical Management System (a set of formal procedures to ensure proper storage, handling, and use) can greatly minimize or prevent exposure to concentrated cleaning product during handling and use.
- Certain ingredients in cleaning products can present hazard concerns to exposed populations (e.g., skin and eye irritation in workers) or toxicity to aquatic species in waters receiving inadequately treated wastes (note that standard sewage treatment effectively reduces or removes most cleaning product constituents). For example, alkylphenol ethoxylates, a common surfactant ingredient in cleaners, have been shown in laboratory studies to function as an “endocrine disrupter,” causing adverse reproductive effects of the types seen in wildlife exposed to polluted waters.
- Ingredients containing phosphorus or nitrogen can contribute to nutrient-loading in water bodies, leading to adverse effects on water quality. These contributions, however, are typically small compared to other point and non-point sources.
- Volatile organic compounds (VOC) in cleaning products can affect indoor air quality and also contribute to smog formation in outdoor air.
(Sources: Choose Green Report on General Purpose Cleaners, Green Seal, March 1998; Green Seal Standard and Environmental Evaluation for General-Purpose, Bathroom, and Glass Cleaners Used for Industrial and Institutional Purposes, October 2000; Hormonally Active Agents in the Environment, National Research Council, National Academy Press, 1999)
Magnitude of Potential Exposure
- The cleaning industry employs about 2.8 million potentially exposed janitors. In addition to these professional janitorial staff, who can be assumed to use cleaning products daily, many other building occupants perform light cleaning on a routine or occasional basis, e.g. dusting, wiping off desks and counters, etc. All building occupants are potentially exposed to the volatile components of cleaning products.
- Data from Washington State show that about 6 percent of janitors experience a job-related injury from chemical exposure to cleaning products every year.
(Sources: Green Seal Standard and Environmental Evaluation for General-Purpose, Bathroom, and Glass Cleaners Used for Industrial and Institutional Purposes, October 2000; Greening the Janitorial Business- How to Select and Use Safe Janitorial Chemicals, Workshop for NISH, US Dept. of Interior, November 2001)
Benefits of Buying Green
- Choosing less hazardous products that have positive environmental attributes (e.g., biodegradability, low toxicity, low volatile organic compound (VOC) content, reduced packaging, low life cycle energy use) and taking steps to reduce exposure can minimize harmful impacts to custodial workers and building occupants, improve indoor air quality, and reduce water and ambient air pollution while also ensuring the effectiveness of cleaning in removing biological and other contaminants from the building’s interior.
- Buying cleaners in concentrates with appropriate handling safeguards, and reusable, reduced, or recyclable packaging, reduces packaging waste and transportation energy.
- Buying less hazardous cleaners may reduce costs when it comes time to properly dispose of any leftover cleaners.