Does green cleaning really protect indoor air quality?
Writing in this publication late last year, Michael Chotiner, a general contractor for both commercial and residential facilities, wrote, “Managing indoor air quality (IAQ) in long-term care facilities is a serious and somewhat complicated business. Older adults are more susceptible than younger people to the effects of airborne pollutants and may develop conditions including but not limited to asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and even cancer when exposed to typical contaminants in nursing homes and assisted-living settings over long periods.”
Causes of poor indoor air quality include dust and mold spores that have become airborne, smoke particulates from cooking and burning candles, and, as Chotiner wrote, “volatile organic compounds (VOCs) given off by building materials, paints, adhesives and furnishings [which are] among the most dangerous and difficult pollutants to control.”
As a contractor, he was more focused on the number of VOCs released into a facility and the mechanical, engineering, and construction issues. But I want to encourage additional discussion on the materials used on a daily basis to keep long-term facilities operating.
In this case, we are referring specifically to cleaning solutions — the chemicals used to clean, disinfect, and maintain all types of surfaces and settings from floors and counters to cafeterias and kitchens.
We all agree older adults are more susceptible to the impacts of negative indoor air quality. And this is especially true if the indoor air quality has been marred due to high levels of VOCs. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs found in products such as cleaning solutions can contribute to these health issues:
- Eye, nose, and throat irritation
- Headaches, loss of coordination, and nausea
- Damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system
- Allergic skin reaction
Because long-term care administrators are aware of this, many jumped on the green cleaning bandwagon years ago. They selected cleaning solutions from such reputable green-certification organizations as Green Seal and others that said their standards and criteria called for strict VOC limits. Administrators believed by selecting these products, they were doing their part, addressing and preventing the negative impacts VOCs can have on older adults.
However, that may not necessarily be the case. While a certification agency may have strict limits on the amount of VOCs a cleaning product can release, that does not necessarily mean the product is releasing no VOCs that still can have a negative impact on indoor air quality. These strict limits on VOCs actually apply more to ozone-depleting VOCs than the VOCs that might be in the air we breathe.
When the manufacturer of a green-certified cleaning solution proudly states on the label that its product has been green certified and meets strict VOC limits, we may need to question this claim. While these products are protecting the ozone layer covering the earth, that does not necessarily mean they are not releasing VOCs that older adults, staff, and visitors to a long-term care facility are breathing. And because this is the case, some of the health concerns mentioned earlier may still be relevant.
Steps to take
Ensuring they are protecting indoor air quality, limiting or eliminating the number of VOCs released in their facility, and — by so doing — protecting the health of older adults does not involve cost issues for administrators. But it does involve doing just a bit more homework.
Most of the green-certification organizations have existed for 20 years or more. During that time, they have evolved into what we can call “environmental specialists,” with some placing the bulk of their efforts on sustainability issues, specific industries, specific types of products, and chemical emissions.
This means that administrators should look for products that are both green certified by at least two certification organizations. One to address green issues specifically and the other to address concerns about indoor air quality and VOCs. This is called “dual certification” and is increasingly common in the professional cleaning industry.
To better understand this, let's say we want to select a dual-certified, high-quality, all-purpose cleaner. We have found one that is certified by Green Seal, as an example, that is cost effective and a proven performer. Now we also want to see if that all-purpose cleaner has been certified again, this time by GREENGUARD, which is known to be more focused on chemical emissions.
In coming years, administrators are likely to find many cleaning products for use in long term care and healthcare facilities that are dual certified. Such products will allow administrators to rest assured that they are keeping their facilities green and the air inside, healthy and truly VOC free.
Mike Sawchuk is Chief Business Development Officer for Avmor, a leading manufacturer and marketer of professional cleaning products in North America.