Keeping It Clean

Oct. 27, 2004
Greener Facilities Newsletter

In nearly 2 years of writing this column, I’ve touched on many areas of the building envelope. One that I haven’t addressed is the janitorial closet. Do you know what chemicals the custodial staff is spraying around your office and in your building? Take a walk down the aisles of any supermarket, big-box retailer, or dollar store and count the many varieties of cleaning solutions, each attractively packaged with a scent for every discriminating nose. My personal experience – and I qualify this to keep the corporate attorneys focused on other things – is that these cleaning agents all do generally the same thing, for a similar price, with about the same level of effectiveness. Yet we spray these chemicals all over our homes and offices with nary a thought as to what’s in them, or what deleterious effects they might have on our health (present and future). 

Let’s take, for example, a name-brand glass cleaner. Again, because I have better things to do than become part of a statistic on tort reform, I won’t mention the brand name – though I can tell you it was featured in the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” a couple of years ago. You may recall that Gus, the father, believed it had healing properties and recommended spraying it on every ache and pain! This particular product contains the following ingredients: 2-Butoxyethanol (111-76-2); Ammonium Hydroxide (1336-21-6); and Water (7732-18-5). 

According to OSHA, inhalation of 2-Butoxyethanol vapors may be irritating to the respiratory tract and may cause nausea, headaches, vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness, and unconsciousness. The liquid is readily absorbed through the skin and may cause irritation to the skin and eyes. Ingestion may cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, and gastrointestinal irritation. Chronic overexposure may damage the kidneys, liver, and blood. So Gus wasn’t wrong in his assumption that this product could get into your system – though I’m a little skeptical of its healing properties. 

“So what?” you say. “We’ve been using these cleaning agents all our lives, and without any harmful side effects.” Do you know that for sure? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes that 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 (dusting, wiping off desks and counters, etc.). All building occupants are potentially exposed to the volatile components of cleaning products.

My fellow U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) member Steve Ashkin, principal of the Bloomington, IN-based Ashkin Group LLC, tells me that American businesses use more than 6 billion pounds of cleaning chemicals a year, and 4.5 billion pounds of janitorial paper products to the tune of 25 million to 50 million trees. Put that into perspective with the statistics on Sick Building Syndrome, which affects 30 million to 70 million American workers a year at a cost of $50 billion for healthcare, absenteeism, lost production, and lost revenue. Now add to it that 500 million pounds of janitorial products – enough to fill 10,000 garbage trucks – are shipped to landfills every year, and this becomes a much more serious conversation than anyone anticipated. It may seem like minutiae, but by using toilet paper with recycled content, we can save between 12.5 and 25 million trees a year. 

Five years ago when people approached me about this subject, I’d tell them that non-toxic cleaning products were too expensive and didn’t work as well as the toxic stuff, and until they could be purchased at or close to market pricing, they’d never sell. Well, that’s all changed. While it’s true that some green cleaning solutions and paper products cost more on a one-to-one basis, Ashkin says that the overall cost of a “green clean” program is generally no worse than neutral. If an office building is already running a good janitorial program using high-quality cleaning products and paper, then switching to a green clean program is – pardon the pun – a wash. Educating the janitorial staff to consume less paper and fewer fluids can mitigate costs. As well, behavioral changes in building occupants can be effected by regulating the amount of washroom paper that is dispensed per use, as opposed to people grabbing a handful of paper towels to dry their hands with most of it going into the trash unused. Ashkin points out the intangibles here are that behavioral changes effected in the workplace often make it into the home, and most people can relate to green cleaning better than green roofs or low-E glass, so it helps broaden understanding of sustainability issues.

Another thing that office occupants can do, Steve notes, is keep their personal space “cleanable.” That is, make the area passable so the cleaning staff can do their job. If you have boxes and files piled up on your office floor, the cleaning staff can’t do an effective job of vacuuming. So any particulates that are trapped in the carpeting – dust, mold, a piece of tuna fish sandwich – get kicked up every time you walk on them and re-aerosolized into the ventilation system. This may not have any effect on you, but the coworker three offices down who’s always sniffling and leaving early for doctors’ appointments may be allergic to one of those particulates, and you’re an inadvertent contributor.

Lastly, Ashkin points out that not all the current commercial cleaning products are toxic and, in fact, green cleaning is enabled by new technology advances that allow more effective cleaning and reduce the use of potentially hazardous materials. In fact, the cleaning industry is embracing green clean. The International Sanitary Supply Association – with 4,800 corporate members – is the cosponsor of a program with the USGBC on meeting Leadership in Energy and Environment Design Green Building Rating System for Existing Buildings (LEED-EB) requirements.  Ashkin is absolutely correct when he says that this can have a “transformational effect” on other industries.

I’m grateful to Ashkin not only for sharing his insights in this column, but also for his participation on the LEED-EB steering committee. I look forward to your comments, questions, and feedback.

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