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Impact of Green cleaning on indoor air quality

About 10 years ago, I was attending a US Green Building Council meeting where Jan Beyea, the facility manager for the National Audubon Society, was reporting on the “greening” of the Audubon House in New York City.

The building used interior paints containing no VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Furnishings avoided plywood, glues, PVC plastics and other substances that emitted formaldehyde and other VOCs. Carpeting was all 100% natural, undyed wool (they used three breeds of sheep to provide the three colors). The carpet backing consisted of jute, a plant fibre – and the carpets were tacked down to avoid the use of glue.

Other innovations included moving the heater-chiller to the roof rather than the basement so that the fresh air intake would be located at the rooftop level, away from street fumes and exhaust vents. High-efficiency filters (ASHRAE 85%) immediately eliminated most particulates and dirt from the incoming air. And the fresh air ratio of 26 CFM (cubic feet per minute) per person greatly exceeded standards and guidelines and was exchanged six times per hour, compared to one or two times per hour in most conventional buildings. The building’s 180-tones cooling system used lithium bromide instead of CFCs.

At the time, this project was viewed as a landmark in the green community. As he neared the end of his update he shared that during the post-construction cleanup, a carpet cleaning product was used that required the building to be vacated and exhausted with 100% fresh air for several days before the building could be occupied again.

Far too often, facility managers, designers, architects, engineers… would spend hours researching the emission profiles of various products to make sure that they were not contributing to poor indoor air quality and other environmental problems. The result has been the increased use of low-VOC paints, adhesives, wall coverings, carpets, and more. But what about the cleaning products and cleaning processes used daily in the buildings? Unfortunately, even today, little if any thought is given to these products.

Greg Norris, a professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health, has stated that “the amount of VOCs from a single waxing of a floor can equal or exceed the VOCs emitted from the flooring materials over the life of those flooring materials”. And when we consider that a floor could get stripped and waxed one, two or three times a year – that’s a lot of VOCs, especially when we are doing it over the next 50 years!

The point is not to suggest that purchasing low-VOC and otherwise green building materials is unimportant. Rather, reducing exposures indoors to our occupants is extremely important as we now know conclusively that it can and does affect health and performance.

But, just as it is important to select the appropriate paints, adhesives, finishes, etc., it is also important to select the appropriate cleaning products. It does make a difference. Not only do some clean better than others, but even when the products themselves work, there can be major differences between cleaning products regarding VOC content and other health and environmental issues.

For example, in California they have estimated that almost 10% of all non-vehicular VOCs come from cleaning products – VOCs that contribute to atmospheric smog. We also know that some of these products emit compounds which, when they evaporate and are inhaled by building occupants, can cause drowsiness, dizziness, flu-like symptoms, trigger asthma and other respiratory problems. And for more sensitive and vulnerable occupants, these emissions can cause debilitating and even life-threatening conditions.

And if you think that this is a problem only for healthcare facilities and nursing homes, think again. If your building includes pregnant woman or those nursing newborn babies they are more vulnerable than the average occupant. As are children, elderly, and those with pre-existing health conditions such as cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, whose immune systems might be weakened.

But beyond the health implications, we now know that occupant performance can also suffer. For example, many workers – when they are sick or simply not feeling well – still come to work. While they are not absent, their work suffers and scientific studies from both Europe and the US are documenting this.

Just like when selecting low VOC-containing paints, adhesives, carpets and the like – you have a choice when selecting cleaning products or the cleaning products used by your janitorial cleaning service. And if you really consider the levels of exposures to building occupants, I think you would find that not only is selecting the right “green” cleaning products easy and cost effective, it is a great strategy to reduce contaminant exposure to your occupants.

I’m sure the facility manager from the Audubon Building wished he had discussed this with his cleaning contractor before the construction clean-up. Now, more than 10 years later, this is a much easier decision for you to make – and it really does make a difference.

Stephen Ashkin
President of The Ashkin Group LLC,
Source: FacilitiesNet

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