Facilities (Campus Spaces)
Green Cleaning Without VOCs
- By Mike Sawchuk
- March 1st, 2017
PHOTO COURTESY OF ROBERT KRAVITZ
The report health and Environmental Benefits of Green
Cleaning Products: Protecting Our
Children, Teachers, School Workers, and the
Environment, compiled by the Environmental
Working Group and Regional
Asthma Management and Prevention,
is more than a decade old. Nevertheless,
much of what it discusses as to the value
of green cleaning solutions and, more
specifically, their importance in reducing
or eliminating volatile organic compounds
(VOCs), is still believed and accepted
today. The report says: “[Traditional]
cleaning products 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 in 12 Southern California
[schools] documented an 83 percent
increase in respiratory-related absences
when daytime ozone levels increase by 20
parts per billion. In California, cleaning
products release 32 tons of ozone-forming
VOCs into the air each day. Certified green
cleaning products must meet strict limits
regarding the levels of volatile chemicals
emitted, reducing their contribution to
smog and asthma.”
It is for reasons such as this that all of the
major green certification organizations —
GreenSeal, Ecologo, GREENGUARD/UL
Environment and others — now have
strict guidelines regarding VOCs. They all
require green alternatives of commonly
used cleaning solutions to have limits on
the number of VOCs their products release
in order to be certified.
A VOC Refresher
While VOCs were a big topic when this
report was issued and when green cleaning
and the adoption of green cleaning
strategies were first being considered and
introduced into schools and universities,
the subject no longer is headline news. So
just as a reminder, let’s define what VOCs
are. The U.S. Natural Library of Medicine
defines VOCs this way: “Volatile organic
compounds . . . are organic compounds
that easily become vapors or gases
[becoming airborne]. Along with carbon,
they contain elements such as hydrogen,
oxygen, fluorine, chlorine, bromine,
sulfur or nitrogen.”
VOCs are found in all kinds of products,
not just cleaning solutions, including paint,
building materials, adhesives and glues,
fabrics, carpet and a host of other products
used or found in colleges every day.
Along with frequently causing respiratory
problems, VOCs have been connected with
cognitive issues, liver and kidney problems,
vision changes and more.
Aware of these issues, many manufacturers
in a variety of industries have
done their due diligence in finding ways to
reduce the number of VOCs their products
release into the air. Further, if they want
the product to be green certified, this usually
is a must.
It has been said that green cleaning is a journey, and we are
learning more all the time. One of the things that has come to light
is that claims that an environmentally preferable cleaning product
has “no VOCs” or a reduced number of VOCs may not be accurate,
at least as it relates to indoor air quality.
When products are marketed with this claim along with a
green certification label, what it really means is that these products
have no or few ozone-depleting VOCs. That is, these products help
to protect the ozone layer, which protects human life on earth.
However, they may not necessarily be protecting indoor air quality.
According to Scott Laughlin, an account executive with
GREENGUARD/UL Environment, some green certification
organizations use a “gram per meter” measuring method when it
comes to VOCs. A certain number of VOC grams per meter can be
acceptable and will allow the product to be green certified. However,
VOCs are still present, can become airborne and can have a
negative impact on human health.
“These reactions [to VOCs] are of particular concern for cleaning
workers,” says Laughlin. “They are using these green products
daily and throughout the day, believing they are safe when in reality
[the products] may be harmful.”
Ensuring No VOCs Means No VOCs
There are ways college administrators can deal with this issue,
especially when protecting indoor air quality is a key concern. It
comes down to something more administrators are likely to see in
coming years when selecting green cleaning solutions: dual certification.
This means that the cleaning product has been certified by
two certification organizations, not just one.
Why is this happening? The various certification organizations
are becoming more specialized. For instance, Green Seal
and ECOLOGO, which is also a part of UL Environment, tend to
put more focus on the overall, cradle-to-grave sustainability of a
product. By comparison, GREENGUARD puts more emphasis on
what they refer to as “emissions,” such as VOCs, which can become
airborne and impact indoor air quality.
As an example of how this might work, let’s say only greencertified
cleaning products are allowed in the student center cafeteria.
In such areas, selecting a product that has been certified by
only one certification organization would likely suffice.
However, say the student center building also houses carpeted
lounges, meeting rooms and study areas. When the carpet is
cleaned, a green-certified product that has been dual certified
would be recommended in order to protect indoor air quality.
Harmful ingredients found in traditional cleaning products have
been removed and we are now assured that “reduced VOCs” or “no
VOCs” refers to the air we actually breathe.
When first hearing about this VOC issue, some college administrators
may wonder if we are being misled about a product’s green
attributes. As far as we know, this is not the case. As referenced
earlier, green certification organizations, manufacturers and green
advocates in many industries are simply learning more about
green chemistry. As we learn more, the necessary corrections can
be made to further protect human health; the ultimate goal of
VOCS SERVE A PURPOSE
It is not an accident that VOCs are found in so many different products. In
general, they make products more effective. For instance, VOCs are found
in solvents, which, when added to cleaning solutions, can help the product
break down and loosen soils to perform more effectively. In paints,
VOCs help the paint better adhere to walls, and manufacturers have been
able to develop a wider variety of hues and colors with VOCs.
This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of College Planning & Management.
Mike Sawchuk has a long history in the green cleaning movement and is now chief business development officer for Avmor, a leading manufacturer of green cleaning solutions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.