As states begin to reopen, people/businesses will be spraying, and cleaning with more chemicals than ever before. The purpose of this post is to explain the severe risks with breathing in these substances, and I’ll provide ways to find safer, cost effective alternatives. We all know that Covid-19 attacks the lungs. This is the time when we need our lungs as healthy as possible. So while we are disinfecting, we don’t want to be destroying our lungs in the process. This will be geared largely toward schools and children toward the end, but it applies to everyone.
According to Rebecca Sutton, PhD, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), “In terms of household cleaners, neither ingredients nor products must meet any sort of safety standard, nor is any testing data or notification required before bringing a product to market. Only the active ingredient chemicals in sanitizers, disinfectants, and fungicides that kill bacteria, viruses, or mold have to be listed on the product label. Manufacturers are not required to list all of the ingredients on cleaning product labels.
Over 350 substances are known to cause asthma in people who have never had asthma before. Most of them cause asthma through a process called sensitization. Small exposures over time can cause asthma, even to adults. (Citation) Once a person has asthma, exposure to many “triggers,” such as irritating chemicals, animal dander, cold air, tobacco smoke, and exercise can cause an episode of asthma. Many cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting products contain chemicals that can both cause and trigger asthma. And let’s not forget, there is a gray area before people have full-blown asthma when they just have compromised lungs that are not working to their full potential.
In the US, researchers estimate that 5% of childhood cancer and 30% of childhood asthma are related to chemical exposures. The President’s Cancer Panel noted in 2010, “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.”
Health effects from exposure to toxic chemicals may not show up for years or even decades. Unlike adults, children have many years to develop illnesses caused by early exposures to toxic chemicals. Also, children breathe 4 to 6 times more air than adults, and they breathe close to the ground where pollutants in air tend to concentrate. Young children are also still developing and have immature bodies. Their bodies are less able to get rid of toxic substances than adults. Their developing organs, especially their brains, can be affected by exposure to toxic substances. (Citation)
According to The American Lung Association, “many cleaning supplies or household products can irritate the eyes or throat, or cause headaches and other health problems, including cancer. Some products release dangerous chemicals, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Other harmful ingredients include ammonia and bleach. Even natural fragrances such as citrus can react to produce dangerous pollutants indoors. VOCs and other chemicals released when using cleaning supplies contribute to chronic respiratory problems, allergic reactions and headaches. Studies are underway to assess how these chemicals affect people who have asthma and other respiratory illnesses. However, past studies link exposure to chemicals from cleaning supplies to occupational asthma and other respiratory illnesses. (Citation).
There are also multiple carcinogens in conventional household and industrial cleaning products. According to the Breast Cancer Fund, when it comes to the prevention of cancer, avoiding synthetic fragrance (that smell that let’s you know it’s been cleaned) is one of the main ways to help yourself. That’s because the dangers of synthetic scents include hormone-disrupting phthalates and synthetic musks. (Citation) To be clear, hormone disruption is one major ways people develop cancer. If you’re looking for small changes, at the very least I recommend avoiding “fragrances” and opting for fragrance-free options.A National Academy of Sciences points out some vital facts: About 95 percent of chemicals used in synthetic fragrances are derived from petroleum (crude oil). They include benzene derivatives (carcinogenic), aldehydes, toluene and many other known toxic chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions.
Let’s just take a look at Clorox for example. It contains a musk (scent) compound which is also on Clorox’s list of approved fragrance ingredients: musk ketone. High blood levels of musk ketone in women may be associated with gynecological abnormalities, including mild insufficiency of the ovaries and compromised fertility. Clorox also contains:
- Acetaldehyde – a possible human carcinogen, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- Oxybenzone – a hormone-disrupting chemical commonly used in sunscreens that has been detected in the bodies of 97 percent of Americans and is linked to low birth weight in baby girls
- Phenol and Benzyl Alcohol – both neurotoxins
- Triethanolamine – a chemical that can cause asthma to develop in otherwise healthy individuals.
Sodium hypochlorite, or bleach, has long been used in ECE to sanitize and disinfect. Recently, bleach has been declared an asthmagen by the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics. An asthmagen is something that can cause asthma. Recent changes in the concentration of EPA-registered bleach products also make correct dilution more confusing and difficult.
In addition to concerns about asthma, and cancer, all of these products are killing our gut microbiomes that provide the foundation for our innate immunity. You can read more about that on my previous posts.
Hopefully during this time in quarantine, and seeing how our earth has been given some time to heal, we all have more appreciation for the environment. The environment and our health are synonymous. Cleaning products also contribute to asthma indirectly, by releasing a host of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that form ozone. Ozone is the primary component of smog that can trigger asthma. A six-month study of fourth graders in 12 Southern California communities documented an 83% increase in respiratory-related absences when daytime ozone levels increase by 20 parts per billion. Children who grow up in smoggy regions have permanently scarred lungs, and feel lifelong effects of diminished lung capacity. In California, cleaning products release 32 tons of ozone-forming VOCs into the air each day. (Citation).
The Environmental Working Group is a great resource to research your household, or business cleaning supplies. It has an extensive database that includes most cleaning products. Sometimes I’m shocked that products from brands I thought were ok are not, and products from brands I thought were horrible are alright. Just because a brand markets itself as “green” and has some non-toxic products, it doesn’t mean all of their products are safe, so it’s important to check each product.
While we can control what we use in our homes, we can’t control what is being sprayed in the stores and businesses so taking a daily binder at the end or beginning of the day, or both depending on the binder is a good idea. You can read more about what binders are and what they do at my previous post.
Now i would like to turn more specifically to schools:
- 53 percent of cleaning products contain chemicals known to harm the lungs.
- 22 percent contain chemicals reported to cause asthma in otherwise healthy individuals.
- An evaluation of 21 common school cleaning products determined 29 percent emitted at least one of three common asthmagens into the air when used as directed. Those asthmagens are formaldehyde, methyl methacrylate and styrene, chemicals commonly found in air fresheners, perfumes and cleaners.
Statistics from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency) show that asthma is a serious problem–
- Nearly 1 in 11 of children in the U.S. have asthma.
- Asthma is a leading cause of school absenteeism.
- Each year, 10.5 million school days are missed due to asthma.
Cleaning supplies also contain heavy metals like lead, chromium, and selenium can cause neurodevelopmental damage in children and cancer. (Grandjean, P. and P.J. Landrigan, Developmental neurotoxicity of industrial chemicals. Lancet, 2006. 368(9553): p. 2167-78) (Smith, A.H. and C.M. Steinmaus, Health effects of arsenic and chromium in drinking water: recent human findings. Annu Rev Public Health, 2009. 30: p. 107-22).
Many districts have turned to using “green” cleaning supplies with much success. Schools are actually saving money by using concentrated green cleaners, automatic dilution equipment, and reducing the number of cleaning products schools need. After phasing green cleaning into all 180 schools in June 2008, Palm Beach County School District (Florida) projected annual district wide savings of $360,000. Additionally, schools can save money by achieving better health for students and staff. California, for example, estimates a loss of $40 million annually from asthma related absences alone.
The City of Santa Monica, CA reported spending 5% less on its cleaning products costs when it switched from conventional cleaners to less-toxic brands a decade ago. Part of this savings was accrued by eliminating duplicative and expensive cleaning products – many of which were in aerosol containers.
According to an October 2008 report published by the Connecticut Foundation on Environmentally Safe Schools, “Many school districts that have adopted green cleaning products and practices have experienced no increased costs or significant cost savings.” For example:
- After the Palm Beach County School District (Florida) saved over $500 in one school during a three-month pilot project, it began phasing in green cleaning to all of its 180 schools in June 2008, with a projected annual district- wide savings of $360,000. 
- Northern Tioga County School District (Pennsylvania) saved nearly $20,000 in one year by eliminating aerosols and other hazardous cleaning products. “Ounce for ounce, aerosols often are more expensive than other cleaning solutions and emit harmful fumes that are inhaled by building occupants.” 
- A 2003-2004 pilot project led by the Healthy Schools Campaign to introduce green cleaning into the Chicago Public School District revealed that the price of Green Seal-certified products was cost-competitive with traditional products. 
Jason Luke, Associate Director of Custodial Support Services at Harvard University Medical Center explained:
In the past, green cleaning products were more expensive, but that is not the case anymore. At minimum the decision to use green cleaning products will be cost neutral. A strong case can be made for cost savings, but this largely depends on what one is switching from: if the current products are not purchased in concentrate form, if dilution control systems are not being utilized, if the current number of products being used is excessive and can be replaced by a smaller group of core products, etc., then a significant cost savings can be realized.
Although “green” cleaners may sometimes appear more expensive than conventional products, they most often cost the same – or less – to use. Many school districts as well as local and state agencies that have switched to environmentally preferable cleaners have saved money by replacing a “ready to use” conventional cleaning product with a highly concentrated “green” cleaner. All institutional cleaning products certified by Green Seal and EcoLogo are concentrates.
The cost savings are even more dramatic when institutions start using automatic dilution equipment, which reduces the unnecessary, expensive and potentially hazardous overconcentration of cleaning products diluted manually. Moreover, many schools that have embarked on a green cleaning program have saved money by reducing the number of cleaning products they need to stock by eliminating unnecessary products. Finally, some school districts have negotiated comparable prices for green cleaners from their vendors or through cooperative purchasing agreements.
Benefect has been approved by the EPA for use on Covid. We’ve had it used in our home during construction, and I like it quite a bit.
The Green Schools Initiative has a cleaning products inventory worksheet to help schools identify products used: www.greenschools.net/downloads/GreenCleaningPilotInventory112009.doc
GreenSeal.Org has a list of products, services, and green cleaning programs.