Low Toxic Cleaning Products

While cleaning products help remove harmful contaminants such as mold, bacteria, and particulates, exposure to many conventional cleaning products can also create health problems, particularly for individuals who have preexisting health conditions such as asthma or allergies, or who have chemical sensitivities or a compromised immune system. Some cleaning products can cause headaches, dizziness, skin irritation, respiratory irritation, eye irrita-


The number of nontoxic (or low-toxic) cleaning products on the market is increasing, and many of these products are just as effective as their more conventional counterparts. When selecting cleaning products, look for those that are labeled "nontoxic," "low VOC" (low volatile organic compounds) or "zero VOC," and "biodegradable," and that have the following attributes:

• Water-based and/or plant-based (rather than petroleum-based solvents)

• Neutral or mild pH (close to 7), to avoid high acidity or alkalinity

• Less than 10 percent VOC concentration (by weight) when diluted (or less than 1 percent by weight for general purpose cleaners, per Green Seal); or less than 25 grams of VOC per liter of cleaning solvent (per California's South Coast Air Quality Management District—SCAQMD)

• Concentrated (for less packaging)

• Can be diluted in cold water

• Readily biodegradable (60 to 70 percent biodegradable within 28 days)

• Unscented (some people are allergic to certain fragrances)

• Recycled-content containers and/or minimal packaging

• Recyclable packaging or reusable, returnable, or refillable container tion, while others contain cancer-causing substances, reproductive toxins, central nervous system toxins, and endocrine system/hormone disruptors. A study in the January 2001 American Journal of Industrial Medicine found that California janitorial workers experience the highest rates of occupational asthma—more than twice the rate for any other occupation. Cleaning product toxicity affects the greater environment as well; some products contain substances that are toxic to aquatic life and others contribute to smog formation. The types of cleaning products that are often highly toxic include disinfectants, graffiti remover, drain cleaner, toilet bowl cleaner, chlorinated scouring powder, carpet and upholstery shampoo, mold and mildew cleaner, furniture and floor polish, and oven cleaner.

The project's O&M manual and trainings should provide some criteria for selecting low-toxic cleaning products, a list of products and ingredients to avoid, information on certified green cleaning products, and suggestions on products to use.

As a general rule, avoid products that are labeled "Danger—Poison." Products with "Warning" labels are also dangerous, but less so; products labeled with "Caution" are the least harmful of the three, though they can still be hazardous. Also avoid products that are labeled as "Corrosive," "Severely Irritating," "Highly Flammable," or "Highly Combustible," properties that should appear on the product label and/or the product's material safety data sheet (MSDS). Avoid aerosols, when possible, as they often contain hydrocarbon propellants, which are flammable and can contribute to indoor air quality problems.

Many of a product's ingredients and properties, as well as safety and first aid information, are provided on its MSDS. Building managers should request and review the MSDS for all cleaning and maintenance products used in the building, and make sure


In 2005, Urban Edge, a Massachusetts-based community development corporation, partnered with the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) to implement a green cleaning initiative. Urban Edge wanted to design a program to replace its existing cleaning products with those that would be better for the health of the environment, residents, and custodial staff, using a centralized purchasing system.

First, MassCOSH conducted a baseline survey to assess Urban Edge's current cleaning products and practices. Survey results revealed a need to provide training on product disposal and storage, so MassCOSH held a training for custodial staff and property managers about the results of the survey and discussed the benefits of switching to safer, less toxic alternatives.

Then, Urban Edge solicited proposals from vendors that provide green cleaning products. Potential providers submitted samples of their green products, which were then tested by Urban Edge's custodians, who provided feedback on their satisfaction based on effectiveness, costs, customer service, and training. The majority of the custodians observed that the green products performed better than existing products. When a vendor was selected, it provided training on product use as well as general environment and health safety issues for all janitors.

that staff are familiar with the MSDS format and know where the sheets are kept. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires all manufacturers to provide an MSDS with the first shipment of any hazardous chemical product, and requires that users of the product keep a copy on file and available for review by employees.

However, not all ingredients and hazards are disclosed on the MSDS, and chemicals are sometimes known by several different names, so they can be difficult to identify. Furthermore, manufacturers' product claims regarding health and environmental safety can sometimes be misleading or unsubstantiated. Fortunately, there are third-party certifiers who verify specific product claims. The nonprofit organization Green Seal has green standards for industrial and institutional cleaners (GS-37), and industrial and institutional floor care products (GS-40). Many cleaning products have undergone testing using those standards and received Green Seal certification. A list of Green Seal-certified cleaning products is available on the organization's website. GREEN-GUARD Environmental Institute also certifies low-emitting cleaning products, and Scientific Certification Systems certifies biodegradability and other single-attribute claims. In addition, the EPA's Design for Environment (DfE) Formulator program has recognized a number of cleaning products that comply with their standards.

In addition to the less-toxic commercial cleaning products that are available, there are some basic and inexpensive "household" substances that can serve as effective and nontoxic alternatives for most residential cleaning jobs. These substances include baking soda, white vinegar, salt, lemon juice, borax, dishwashing detergent, and hydrogen peroxide. For example, a mixture of baking soda, hot water, and vinegar can clear drains


Nueva Vista Apartments (Santa Cruz, California) Mercy Housing California

Nueva Vista, a 48-unit urban infill project in Santa Cruz, California, first opened in December 2003. The project includes a childcare facility and a community center that residents and people in the surrounding neighborhood can utilize. The project protects the health of residents by using a variety of nontoxic finishes and lowers operating costs by incorporating a solar photovoltaic system and energy efficiency measures. Upon opening, the green features of the project presented a new set of challenges for Mercy Housing's property management staff. The management team was faced with maintaining systems, green finishes, and materials that were unfamiliar to them. Nueva Vista has now been in operation for over three years, providing some valuable insight into the operations and maintenance of a green affordable housing project. The project sees a savings of $5,000 per year in maintenance costs in comparison with similarly sized properties.1

According to property management staff, the green finishes, which include natural linoleum and low-volatile organic compound (low-VOC) paint, have held up well over the years. No significant portions of the linoleum have had to be replaced thus far. Mercy Housing staff make an effort to educate residents about the green materials, their environmental benefits, and how they improve the health of indoor areas. Due to the increased first cost of the linoleum, Mercy Housing includes an addendum to each tenant's lease that requires residents to properly care for the flooring. The addendum also places the cost of repairing or replacing the linoleum onto residents who do not take proper care of the flooring. With the lease addendum, Mercy Housing staff also provide information and training on the proper sealing and cleaning of the linoleum. Annually, each resident is provided with enough sealer and cleaner to maintain the linoleum for another year. The on-site property manager also keeps a small supply of sealer and cleaner that is available to residents who want to clean the linoleum more frequently. See Appendix C for the language of Mercy Housing's lease addendum.

1. Interview with Jorge Astacio, property manager, Nueva Vista Apartments, Mercy Housing, Santa Cruz, California, May 11, 2006.

and borax or hydrogen peroxide can remove stains and mildew. Building owners or managers should consider purchasing some low-toxic cleaning products in bulk to give or to sell to residents for their use. In the Oleson Woods development in Tigard, Oregon, the developer gives new residents the ingredients for natural cleaning products, and provides recipes for natural cleaning solutions in the resident manual.

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