Guide to Less Toxic Products
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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.
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 level.
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.
"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 chemicals?
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 residents?
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 School Handbook)
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 Cousteau's boats.
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 www.chebucto.ns.ca/Education/CASLE.
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 first!
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).
1. AMICUS Journal, Natural Resources Defence Council, Vol. 11, No.1, 1989.
2. Berthold-Bond, A.. Clean & Green, Ceres Press, NY, 1994.
3. Dadd, Debra Lynn, The Nontoxic Home & Office, St. Martin's Press, NY, 1992.
4. Indoor Air Quality: Tools for Schools the US EPA's project on indoor air quality in schools. Superintendent of Documents, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, Penn. 15250-1800.
5. Ingredients/MSDS, Allerjan, Bebbington Chemicals, Dartmouth, N.S.
6. Ingredients/MSDS, Shaklee product line.
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12. Management Services Agreement, between Halifax District School Board and Service Master Canada, June,1993.
13. Miller, ed., The Healthy School Handbook, the U.S. National Education Association. 1995.
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16. MSDS, Cleaning products, QEII Hospitals, Halifax, N.S.
17. MSDS, Service Master MSDS manual, in Halifax schools.
18. New Jersey Department of Health, Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet Right to Know Program. CN 368, Trenton, N.J., 08625-0368. 19. Nova Scotia Department of Labour, Discussion Paper on Indoor Air Quality, Occupational Health and Safety Advisory Council, November 21, 1994.
20. Nova Scotia Department of Labour, Taking Responsibility.
21. Rapp, Doris M.D., Is This Your Child's World? 1996, ISBN 0-553-10513-2
22. Rapp, Doris M.D., The Impossible Child, 1989,ISBN 0-9616318-1-3 22.Rapp, Doris M.D., Is This Your Child? 1991, ISBN 0-688-08623-3
23. RATE (Real Alternatives to Toxins in the Environment), Pesticide Facts
24. Report to the New York State Board of Regents on the Environmental Quality of Schools, New York State Education Department, Albany, New York 12234, 1994.
25. Rogers, S. M.D. Tired or Toxic, Prestige Publishing, N.Y. 1990,p.12-24.
26. Rousseau, Rea, & Enwright, Your Home, Your Health and Well-Being.1988.
27. Wilkenfeld, I.R. Patient Education: Scents Make No Sense. The Environmental Physician. Fall,1991.
28. Wilkenfeld, I.R. Prescription Environments: Solutions to the Sick Building syndrome. 1994.
29. Wilkenfeld, I.R., Patient Education: Contaminated Classrooms: when Learning Becomes Lethal. The Environmental Physician, Winter 1991, pp. 30-32.
30. World Health Organization, Environmental Criteria 59, 1986, Geneva.
(c) 2004 Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia