Skip to main content
Lisa Frack's picture

My usual approach to grassroots activism is to focus on making laws better: paid family leave, toxics, breastfeeding, you get the picture. Pretty much the usual issues that rightfully rile up today’s moms in the U.S. (that Moms Rising has thankfully plunked in the center of the proverbial “kitchen table”). But this time, I’m redirecting my efforts to where the rubber hits the road. Or, more to the point, where the mop hits the classroom floor.

Baking soda, vinegar and plain soap are my cleaning supplies at home - plus a little elbow grease (ok, sometimes a lot if it’s been awhile). I don't use conventional cleaners for a reason: I don't know what's in them (very weak labeling laws) and I'm pretty certain they're not good for my family – particularly my kids. But for about 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, my kids aren't at home. They're at school. And what, exactly, do they clean with there?

Beats me.

But it shouldn't, because typically, they don’t do the green cleaning thing. Which I happen to know from both personal experience (routine air freshener spraying after pre-school naptime - yikes) and tests recently sponsored by the Environmental Working Group (full disclosure: I work there). EWG’s tests revealed 100's of chemicals in common school cleaning products - most of which have never been assessed for safety and others that are linked to asthma and cancer. Not exactly ideal for young learners - or the teachers and school staff who spend even more hours in schools.

Product tests revealed 100's of unhealthy air contaminants

Because cleaning product labels are so under-regulated, product testing is the only way to really know what's in them. Tests of 21 products and ingredient list analysis revealed:

- 6 chemicals known to cause asthma,
- 11 chemicals that are known, probable, or possible human carcinogens, and
- 283 chemicals on which there is almost no scientific data, according to a review of the scientific literature.

Air fresheners, graffiti removers, and floor finishes were found to be especially polluting products. You can see a full list of the chemicals detected in the report.

What's so bad about chemicals in school cleaning products?

It goes without saying that healthy indoor air is essential for any classroom. Yet 1 in 5 public schools in the U.S. have unsatisfactory indoor air quality, causing asthma and other health problems in students, teachers, custodians, and staff.

Chemicals in many conventional cleaning supplies used in California schools (where the test products were in use) have been linked to asthma, cancer, reproductive toxicity, hormone disruption, and neurotoxicity. After cleaning, chemical residues have been measured in air, on surfaces, in dust - and some of these chemicals have been detected in people's blood and urine, a clear indication of exposure. Read the full discussion of health effects (unless you’d rather just skip to the good news - there is some!).

Green-certified cleaners are a better (but not perfect) bet

The certified green cleaners EWG tested released less than one-sixth the total air pollution emitted by conventional products. And there's more good news:

- They don't contain ingredients known to cause asthma,
- The soaps don't contain anti-bacterial ingredients,
- They're effective,
- They meet standards that address health and safety concerns for workers,
- They don't contain chemicals of concern common in traditional cleaning products, and
- They don't have to cost more.

All that said, most green cleaning products could be a little greener; some that we tested emit substances that could pose a risk to children's health, indicating that the certification process is not airtight and needs to be continually upgraded. (Are you there, certifiers? We moms are busy and would much rather trust you than read more – always more - labels!)

Regardless, the certified green cleaners are still very much worth a switch. EWG recommends Green Seal or EcoLogo certified products.

Work with your school to use greener products and practices

Greening our schools' cleaning routine (or at the very least asking what it IS) is now high on my list. If it's on yours, too, check out our tools for parents to help your kids' schools green their cleaning. You'll find:

- 8 steps to work effectively with your school
- A customizable letter you can use to start the conversation, and
- A fact sheet to help educate school administrators about the benefits of green cleaning.

Clean greener at home, too
Some of the products tested are also commonly used for home cleaning (think: Comet, Simple Green), so EWG researchers put together their top tips for safer home cleaning, too. While you begin the process of working with your school to clean greener, you can make some simple changes at home - where you're in charge. Until the kids get home, anyway....

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of strongly encourages our readers to post comments in response to blog posts. We value diversity of opinions and perspectives. Our goals for this space are to be educational, thought-provoking, and respectful. So we actively moderate comments and we reserve the right to edit or remove comments that undermine these goals. Thanks!