Maintenance Chemicals in Schools
By Karen Robinson, CASLE (1996, revised 2003)
Anyone who has added chlorine bleach to laundry knows that unless one has
much air movement/ventilation,
or is wearing protective gear, it is virtually impossible to work directly
with cleaning chemicals and not breathe
in at least some of the fumes. What is less well known is that airborne
fumes from many cleaning chemicals
can do significant harm to the body. Absorption through the skin is
another common route for possibly harmful
cleaning chemical exposure. Exposures do not have to be large to affect
health. Research and experience are
showing that low-level exposures can produce measurable effects, and that
long-term, low-level exposures can
do accumulated harm. Choosing the least toxic products to begin with is
the first step toward prevention
of possible harm. In our schools, custodians are at particular risk
because they work most closely and
constantly with cleaning chemicals, and often in tiny janitorial closets
that have no ventilation. As for the
children, they are at special risk because of their size and developing
bodies. Researchers at the University of
California at Irvine have concluded that children are as much as six times
as vulnerable to toxins as are adults.
Floor wax, stripper, urethane floor surfacing, caulks, paints, cleaning
solutions, and many other chemically based
products contribute to the Total Volatile Organic Compound (TVOC) levels
in school air. In this article we will
examine, as examples, some of the chemicals contained in the products used
in Halifax schools prior to 1996,
and that are still in use in some schools in Nova Scotia. We will also
look briefly at some alternatives.
MSDS - Material Safety Data Sheets
Regulations require that Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) be on location
for all WHMIS (Workplace
Hazardous Materials Information System) controlled products in use. As
you may know, MSDSs are prepared
by the manufacturer according to government specifications, and their
purpose is to communicate important
information about products used in the workplace. They may, however
provide us with a false sense of security.
They are only partially useful for helping to identify potential hazards
and for finding less-toxic or least-toxic
First, ingredients lists are protected information, so only
those ingredients that must by law be
reported may be on the MSDS.
Second, standards are set for healthy adult
males in the workforce, not women,
children, the old, or the ill, such as those individuals who have already
developed chemical sensitivities.
many chemicals have not been tested at all. The U.S. FDA receives an
average of 50 new chemicals per day
to examine and determine if they are safe and suitable for use.
impossible to adequately test even a fraction
of these for carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic, or other hazard. (A
teratogen causes birth defects by damaging
the fetus.) Many of these are chemicals destined for the cleaning
business. Fourth, not everything need be
reported on MSDSs. Chemicals that are present in amounts less than 1%
need not be listed, and carcinogens
below .1% can be exempt. Inactive ingredients such as binders, fragrance,
or pigments are not always reportable
either. As an example, experts in the industry tell us that many liquid
handsoaps contain formaldehyde as the
preservative - at less than 1% it need not be reported on MSDSs.
Environmental Health Professionals and
physicians assert there should be zero tolerance for formaldehyde exposure
because of its sensitizing quality.
(People sensitized to formaldehyde often develop broad sensitization to
multitudes of chemicals and substances
unrelated to formaldehyde.) According to the New Jersey Department of
Health Hazardous Substance List
(HSL) it is also a "CARCINOGEN - HANDLE WITH EXTREME CAUTION".
Take as another example the product O----o Room Deodorant. Those
concerned about scent-free schools
complain of its particular potency, yet the MSDS lists under Ingredients:
MSDSs of the products currently being used in our schools list content of
many chemicals which would
contribute to TVOC levels. All of those mentioned below are in products
in current use in Halifax schools and
are also on Hazardous Substance Lists. The chemical and hazard
information below is from the peer-reviewed
New Jersey Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet Right to Know Program, New
Jersey Department of Health.
W-------- Graffiti Remover contains 2-Butoxy Ethanol, Acetone, toluene,
Isobutane, and Butane/propane, all
chemicals on the HSL.
"2-Butoxy Ethanol can effect you when breathed in and by passing through
your skin. EXPOSURE MAY
CAUSE REPRODUCTIVE DAMAGE. handle with extreme caution. Exposure can
irritate the eyes, nose, and
throat. Higher exposure can cause you to become dizzy, lightheaded, and
to pass out. High or repeated
exposure may break down red blood cells, and cause anemia. It may damage
the liver and kidneys."
"Acetone can affect you when breathed in and by passing through your skin.Exposure to high concentrations
can cause you to become dizzy, lightheaded, and to pass out. Contact can
irritate the skin. Repeated exposure
can cause dryness. Exposure can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat.
Acetone is a FLAMMABLE LIQUID and
a FIRE HAZARD."
"Toluene can effect you when breathed in and by passing through your skin.
Toluene may cause mutations.
Handle with extreme caution. It may damage the developing fetus.
Exposure can irritate the skin nose, throat,
and eyes. Higher levels can cause you to feel dizzy, lightheaded, and to
pass out. Death can occur. Repeated
exposures can damage bone marrow, causing low blood cell count. It can
also damage the liver and kidneys.
Toluene can cause slowed reflexes, trouble concentrating, and headaches."
The carpet cleaners S-----l and S-----l with Citrus contain Petroleum
Cleaners containing Citrus can claim to be "natural" - a good marketing
tool in today's environmentally aware
marketplace. However, d'limonene, a known Sensitizer, is the active
ingredient. The US Department of Health
reports that D'limonene can be more toxic than Toluene.
Petroleum Distillates are also called Naphtha, Petroleum Ether, and
Aromatic Solvents. They are used as a
herbicide, degreaser, and paint thinner. Health risks include dizziness,
lightheadedness, passing out, irritation
to the nose, throat, and skin. "Prolonged contact can cause skin ulcers,
severe irritation, and aplastic anemia
(destroys blood cells). Chronic exposure will induce symptoms of central
nervous system depression, and
neurobehavioural disorders." (Dry C----n also contains Petroleum
W---glide and the urethane, used on gymnasium floors contain Xylenes which
"can affect you when breathed
in and by passing through your skin. Xylenes may damage the developing
fetus....can damage bone marrow.
Exposure can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. High levels can cause
dizziness, passing out, and death.... can
cause problems with memory and concentration." and much more.
This urethane also contains Mineral Spirits, Aromatic Naphtha, and Cobalt
Octoate, a suspected carcinogen in
humans. All of these are listed on the HSL.
W---glide also contains Trichloroethane which is a carcinogen, and also
can cause headaches, dizziness, and
A------s Liquid Handsoap contains Ethylene Glycol, or Antifreeze, which
can effect you when breathed in or
by passing through the skin. Absorption by the body is higher if Ethylene
Glycol is heated or sprayed. (Hands
warmed by warm water provide heat) It should be handled as a
TERATOGEN--WITH EXTREME CAUTION
(A teratogen causes birth defects by damaging the fetus). Exposure can
cause a 'drunk' feeling, nausea,
vomiting, and headache. Higher exposures can cause kidney damage and
death. Exposure can cause kidney
and liver damage even without other symptoms. It can cause an allergic
skin rash. Like most of the other
products mentioned, A-----s Liquid Handsoap also has added fragrance.
Glass c---e P-o contains Ammonium Hydroxide and Propylene Glycol
"Ammonium Hydroxide can affect you when breathed in, can severely irritate
the nose, throat, and lungs. Death
may be caused by suffocation or fluid buildup in the lungs. It is a
HIGHLY CORROSIVE CHEMICAL (their
capitalization) and can burn the skin and eyes causing permanent damage.
Long term exposures at low levels
may cause chronic bronchitis."
"Propylene Glycol Monomethyl Ether can affect you when breathed in and by
passing through the skin. Can
irritate the eyes, skin, nose, and throat. Very high levels may cause you
to feel dizzy and lightheaded, and even
to pass out. Very high levels may cause lung, kidney, and liver damage."
Other cleaning products used in schools contain substances on the HSL and
have similar risks to those listed
above. The following are a few examples:
A baseboard finish remover contains Butane and 2-Butoxy Ethanol.
A degreaser contains Pyrineglycol n-Butyl Ether.
A power cleaner (95% volatile) contains Isopropylamine.
A toilet bowl descaler contains Hydrogen Chloride (Hydrochloric Acid)
which is highly toxic.
A drymop treatment contains petroleum oil (85-95% volatile by weight)
A wall cleaner contains Trichloroethane, a CARCINOGEN.
Virtually all of the cleaning products examined also have added fragrance,
making Scent-Free programs
impossible. When hazardous chemicals are in daily use, however,
Scent-Free, as important as it is, becomes
just a part of the health concern.
Health, Behaviour, and the Ability to Learn:
There is substantial evidence from the National Research Council, the
World Health Organization, Environmental
Health experts, and others, that children are at significantly more risk
from toxin exposures than are adults.
Current peer reviewed research is showing, however, that exposures to
common airborne household chemicals
is potentially harmful to all, not just the young, the small, or the weak.
Researchers report changes in cognitive
functioning/attention/learning ability, mood/emotion, behaviour, and more.
(see references) Airborne chemicals
can be especially harmful to those with respiratory conditions, allergies,
and related illnesses, and to those who
have developed Chemical Hypersensitivity. Some of these studies have been
done on low-level mixes of
common chemicals found in the indoor air of homes. It may be significant
to note that cleaning products in
schools tend to be more potent, industrial-strength chemical products.
Because of the possible presence of mutagens and teratogens in cleaning
products, it makes sense for female
custodians and teachers of childbearing age to check out the MSDS sheets
of the products used in their schools.
(It bears noting, however, that research has also linked birth defects in
offspring to chemical exposures involving
fathers.) Most high schools have a few pregnant students, and some high
schools have daycares to care for the
infants and young children of students. Caution is warranted because of
newer evidence that daily long-term
exposures to low levels of harmful materials may cause previously
unrecognized health impacts.
So far we have only looked at single chemicals and the health effects that
research has found can result from
exposure. Random mixes of chemicals from several sources (for example,
the photocopy fumes, a perfume, the
room deodorant, and fresh floor wax all in the same room) mingle in the
air and form unknown chemicals with
unknown effects. These chemical "soups" further complicate the overall
issue of low-level chemical exposures.
Several chemicals, each at a low level, can combine to make a soup with a
combined TVOC level that can be
of significant health impact. Imagine, a combination that makes an
entirely new and unpredictable chemical -
an unknown chemical with unknown health effects and at a significant TVOC
Most of this article, however, has been aimed at keeping healthy people
healthy by limiting the toxins in
schools. We have said little so far about those who have developed
Chemical Sensitivity. Many of these were
healthy people who were made ill by environmental contaminants such as
pesticides, long term low-level
exposure to one or more contaminants (for example, a custodian who cleans
with ammonia every day), or from
single toxic doses such as accidental pesticide poisoning. These people
can be made ill in often profound and
unexpected ways by even extremely low level exposures to chemicals. For
children and staff like this, going
to school poses a sometimes impossible obstacle. Their disability makes
scent-free/less-toxic schools a must.
The New Jersey Department of Health HSL has a question and answer section
"Q: If I have acute health effects, will I later get chronic health
A: Not always. Most chronic (long term) effects result from repeated
exposures to a chemical.
Q: Can I get long-term effects without ever having short-term effects?
A: Yes, because long term effects can occur from repeated exposures to a
chemical at levels not high enough
to make you immediately sick.
Q:What are my chances of getting sick when I have been exposed to
A: The likelihood of becoming sick from chemicals is increased as the
amount of exposure increases. This is
determined by the length of time and the amount of material to which
someone is exposed.
Q: When are higher exposures more likely?
A: Conditions which increase risk of exposure include dust releasing
operations, (grinding, mixing,
blasting,dumping, etc.) other physical and mechanical processes (heating,
pouring, spraying, spills, and
evaporation from large surface areas such as open containers), and
"confined space" exposures (working inside
vats, reactors, boilers, small rooms, etc.).
Q: Is the risk of getting sick higher for workers than for community
A: Yes. Exposures in the community, except possibly in cases of fires or
spills, are usually much lower than
those found in the workplace. However, people in the community may be
exposed to contaminated water as
well as to chemicals in the air over long periods. Because of this, and
because of exposure of children or people
who are already ill, community exposures may cause health problems."
Is it possible to get the job done well without using such toxic
chemicals? Yes, it is. Finding truly non-toxic
solutions for some needs is impossible, so choosing Least-Toxic
alternatives becomes the goal. For example,
disinfectants are registered with government as pesticides, designed to
kill living organisms. The Centre for
Disease Control in Atlanta found normal scrubbing to be as effective as
disinfectants. Scrubbing, however takes
a bit more time and effort. Additional research was conducted for one
year in a U.S. hospital where the
commercially available disinfectant was compared to a mixture of borax and
hot water. The monitoring
bacteriologist reported that borax satisfied all the hospital's germicidal
requirements. (Dadd, The Nontoxic Home
and Office, p.22) Dr. Doris Rapp, physician, allergist, and Environmental
Health Specialist suggests a 3%
solution of Hydrogen Peroxide as a safer alternate disinfectant. (Healthy
Some companies are responding to the need for safer cleaning products by
formulating commercially available
and effective, less toxic alternatives. There are many Scent-Free lines
available and others that claim to be
"natural" or "environmentally Safe". BUT BEWARE. Care in choosing must
be exercised even with these
products, and for several reasons. "Natural" is not always safer - many
natural materials are naturally toxic
(methane gas, poisonous plants, uranium,...), and some man-made chemicals
can be less toxic than some natural
substances (citrus). Some "natural" cleaners also have added natural
fragrance that can be as potent as
chemically added fragrance. Beware as well of "Scent-free" products. A
cleaner containing toxic substances
would still be toxic even if the fragrance were removed. To further
complicate the issue, some scent-free
products can be more toxic because the scent is covered by a masking
chemical(s). As for "Environmentally
Safe" claims, try this example: pesticides making such claims may protect
Mother Earth by breaking down
relatively quickly, but before they do so they are very effective killers.
I thought it would be interesting to compare MSDSs of the cleaning
products in use in our schools to those used
in our local hospital system and to Green Knight products, a locally
available line of less-toxic commercial
janitorial products. My comments are not to be seen as endorsements, but
my general conclusions are that the
hospital line is less toxic than the school line, and Green Knight is less
toxic than both of the others. Some of
the hospital products have Ethylene Glycol (highly toxic, risk of brain,
liver, and kidney damage), and several
other chemicals of concern, such as Petroleum Distillates, Ammonia, and
Diethyl Ether, that require caution
according to the Hazardous Substance Lists. But, all things considered,
they seem to be a good step in the right
direction. The Green Knight products contain few chemicals on the
Hazardous Substance Lists, and no
phosphates, preservatives, dyes, perfumes, or petroleum solvents.
Although their metal cleaner and one of their
floor strippers contain Glycol Ether, their other stripper does not. Even
the floor wax appears to be less toxic
and is being used in some schools.
There are other comparable "less-toxic" cleaners available such as some of
the Shaklee products (Basic H and
Basic D) and Nature Clean. The Shaklee cleaning products have been around
a bit longer than some of the
other less toxic lines, but some products have added fragrance. Last time
I checked they were in use at Woods
Hole and The Biosphere research facility in Arizona, and on Jacques
As part of their renowned Green Program (which saved the company over
$200,000.00 in the first year alone)
CP Hotels use combinations of baking soda, borax (with caution - do not
breathe the powder), and vinegar for
much of their cleaning needs. Tougher, although still less-toxic,
products are saved for the tougher jobs.
Citizens for A Safe Learning Environment's (CASLE) website has more
information on choosing cleaning and
maintenance products for schools. See
Please note that when you settle on your choice of safer products, keep
room for flexibility. Some individuals
may have health difficulties that need use of yet another alternative.
I hope this article helps your school take another important step toward
providing a clean and safe place for our
children to spend their days. We know so much more now about the impacts
of chemicals on the body. Dr.
Dick Irwin, toxicologist at Texas A&M Universities states, "Chemicals have
replaced bacteria and viruses as
the main threat to health. The diseases we're beginning to see as the
major causes of death in the latter part of
this century...are diseases of chemical origin."
Seems we should cleanup our schools by cleaning up the cleaning materials
Note: The original (1996) version of this article raised awareness of the need
for more careful selection of cleaning and maintenance products in Nova Scotia
schools and contributed to better selections across the province. Some of the
more hazardous products, however, can still be found in use, particularly in the
P-3 schools (schools privately owned and operated but leased by the government).
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