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Improving School Environments Through Green Cleaning

As research mounts about the link between indoor air quality and health, and as more children enter school with respiratory problems, schools, districts, and even whole states are switching to more environmentally-friendly cleaning agents.Included: Descriptions of green cleaning programs and how to implement them.


Those words describe products most of us would like to purchase, but sometimes we opt not to buy them because they can be difficult to find or expensive.

But just as organic and all-natural foods are becoming more mainstream, other products -- such as cleaning supplies -- are becoming more environmentally-friendly and more available.

And as the number of children diagnosed with asthma and chemical sensitivities continues to increase and research mounts about the importance of indoor air quality, some school leaders are seeking out a new generation of cleaning supplies for their school buildings.


Decreasing the use of chemical cleaners in schools can reduce the number of health problems among teachers, students, and custodial staff; cut down on absenteeism; and even improve student performance, according to green cleaning advocates.

What Makes a Cleaner Green?

"Green cleaning" refers to the process of using cleaning substances that do not contain harsh chemical ingredients (such as ammonia) found in many conventional cleaners. Green cleaners are made from biodegradable detergents and emulsifiers derived from corn, oranges, and soybeans. An emulsifier is a substance that stabilizes two unblendable substances.

"The more you do to improve the environment in the buildings, the more you see [performance] improvements," said Claire L. Barnett, executive director of the Healthy Schools Network and coordinator of the Coalition for Healthier Schools. "Every school district is enrolling more children with health and behavior problems. Kids are more vulnerable to chemicals; when schools take steps to reduce chemicals, they often see behavior and attendance improve."

The keys to learning, she noted, "may be in custodians pockets."

"Most schools dont see cleaning as integral to the mission of educating children," added Steve Ashkin, president of The Ashkin Group, a company devoted to green cleaning. "But I assure you, they are not going to learn if they are getting sick."

People spend about 90 percent of their time indoors, and indoor air can be between 5 and 100 times more polluted than outdoor air because of the lack of circulation, said Barnett, citing information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency .

"Most schools use cleaning supplies that can affect teachers and kids," noted Rochelle Davis, executive director of the Healthy Schools Campaign, advocates for policies and practices that create healthier school environments. "But there is no reason schools shouldnt be making changes. Green cleaning products are available, effective, and affordable."


The growing evidence of the impact of chemicals, coupled with parents concerns about their use in schools, prompted the New York State legislature to pass a bill in April 2005 requiring all public and private schools to use green cleaning products. The bill was signed by then-Governor George Pataki and went into effect September 1, 2006. New York is the first state to mandate the use of green cleaning products in schools.

"The keys to learning may be in custodians pockets."

"In general, people are happy that we are introducing less toxic chemicals," Carl T. Thurnau, director of New Yorks State Education Department Office of Facilities Planning, told Education World. "We certainly supported it."

New York school districts received a list of green cleaning products to use. Districts are allowed to first use up any surplus of conventional cleaners they have on hand before purchasing green cleaners. If district officials find that nothing on the product list is effective, they can return to conventional cleaners, but state officials are stressing that administrators must make every attempt to find products that meet their needs, according to Thurnau.

"There are multiple products on the list," he said. "We expect they will try different ones on the list until they find one that works." The inventory of green cleaning supplies also is growing as larger companies enter the market, Thurnau added.

Products used by New York state schools must be certified by Green Seal, an independent not-for-profit company that provides "science-based environmental certification standards," according to its Web site. In certifying products, Green Seal considers the significant environmental impacts of a product, starting with the extraction of raw materials for its manufacture, the manufacturing process, its use, and disposal.

Certification is necessary because often different manufacturers have different definitions of what constitutes an environmentally-friendly product. New York state officials originally had planned to develop their own set of green guidelines, but quickly realized there was not enough time and it would not be cost effective to re-invent the wheel, Thurnau said. "We were able to get the guidelines and standards out of the way," he said.


Officials in two school districts that adopted green cleaning practices said the transition went smoothly and cleaning and educational staff members appreciate the change.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools formally switched to green cleaning in 2000 because of environmental and health concerns, said Richard Fellers, chief operating officer for the district, which has 68 schools.

"It was the right thing to do; we had more and more students with asthma and reactions to chemicals, and we decided to make changes to make the schools more environmentally safe," Fellers told Education World.

The conversion, coupled with the adoption of other cleaning strategies, has gone so well that in 2002 the Pittsburgh district received the governors award for environmental excellence for policies and practices.

Lockport (Illinois) Township High School converted to green cleaning about three years ago, after William Thompson, director of facilities for the two-high school Lockport Township High School District 205 attended some seminars on the topic and got some information from the Healthy Schools Campaign.

"It just seemed like a no-brainer," Thompson told Education World. "It creates a better environment for the custodians, students, and teachers. I dont see why anybody wouldnt be using them [green cleaning products.]" The green products the school staff uses have proven just as effective as other cleaning agents. The other high school in the district started using green cleaning products this year, he added.

"Kids cant learn and teachers cant teach in unhealthy buildings."

Thompson started introducing green products gradually at Lockport Township High, and now between 80 and 90 percent of the cleaning agents are environmentally-friendly.

To start off in Pittsburgh, supervisors discouraged staff members from using traditional cleaning methods, such as sterilizing cafeteria tables with ammonia, said Fellers. "If we could find something that did the same job but was not an irritant, that was the way to go. We found that green products are just as effective."

The custodians at Lockport H.S. also seem to appreciate that the district wants to provide them a safer environment in which to work, Thompson noted. In years past, when custodians stripped the school floors during the summer, a number of custodians would get dizzy from inhaling the fumes from the cleaner, even with a lot of ventilation in the buildings, he said.

While no studies have been conducted on the effect of the change on attendance and performance, Pittsburgh school staff members have reported that fewer students have been going home because of asthma symptoms or reactions to chemicals, according to Fellers.

Green cleaning materials also are no more expensive than the more mainstream variety. "We found it was a one-for-one trade-off," Fellers said. "Our sense is that it is cost-neutral. But we did it more for creating a healthier environment than to save money."


Several factors are contributing to the increased interest in green cleaning, Davis told Education World. Besides the growth in students with special health needs enrolling in mainstream classes, afterschool programs and evening meetings mean school buildings are in use for longer hours each day, creating the need for more frequent cleaning and new cleaning strategies. Many schools also are overcrowded, which contributes to poor air quality.

Also, there is a growing concern in society about the affects of exposure to chemicals, especially on children, not to mention people who work with them and the population in general. Often custodians need gloves and masks when using conventional cleaning supplies, but the daily exposure still can take a toll, Barnett noted.

"We did it more for creating a healthier environment than to save money."

"I have heard of custodians with high rates of occupational asthma, or who often get headaches or skin rashes," Barnett told Education World. "Green cleaning also reduces [employee] absenteeism and improves productivity."

Education associations also are spreading the word about the importance of indoor air quality and building cleanliness. "We support practices and policies that help to better school environments," said Ericka Turner, project director for the Healthy School Environments project of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). The project is funded by the EPA.

A survey of AASA members two years ago indicated that a number of administrators realized that the school environment is important and influences learning, but they needed more resources to address the issue, Turner said.

Within the past five years, green cleaning supplies also have become more effective, less expensive, and more readily available. In some cases, using green cleaning products can be less expensive, because schools may need fewer products. Some school districts that tried green cleaning products in the past often found that they were costly and not very effective and returned to the conventional cleaning substances. But the green cleaning market has evolved, Ashkin said.

"Green cleaning has become easy," he told Education World. "Five years ago, it was hard to find these products. Now its easier to buy environmentally-certified products. The demand is much higher and there are more manufacturers playing in the green arena, so competition is bringing the cost down. The cost [of changing cleaning agents] is neutral in most categories."

Cost also should not be a factor in most districts. "Far too many people find it far too easy to keep doing what they have been doing," he said, "but its not merely an expense issue: kids cant learn and teachers cant teach in unhealthy buildings."

Read more: Read the second part of this article, Crafting Thorough Cleaning Plans.


  • Facilities
  • Sick Schools Create Dilemma for School Districts

    Ellen R. Delisio
    Education World®
    Copyright © 2008 Education World

    Originally published 02/05/2007
    Updated 03/31/2008