Not-So-Green Cleaning

Jan. 3, 2017
Cleaning product certification aims to keep contaminants out of waterways

About the author: Mike Sawchuck is chief business development officer for Avmor. Sawchuck can be reached at [email protected].

Back in 2002, when the green cleaning movement in the professional cleaning industry was just starting to generate interest, there was only one “major,” small as it was, green certification organization in the U.S. A nationwide study on 139 streams sought to determine if they were contaminated with man-made chemicals and if those chemicals could be endangering fish, aquatic life or vegetation, or making their way into the food chain.

The study found that up to 80% of the streams contained contaminants such as endocrine disruptors, which can interfere with the hormones of both humans and wildlife, including negative impacts on reproduction systems.

The study also noted that large amounts of phosphates, found in many household and commercial cleaning products, appeared to be causing damage to waterways. Specifically, researchers identified dead zones in some lakes and streams; these are areas without enough oxygen to support life, caused by high nutrient levels.

Common Chemical Contaminants

Traditional cleaning solutions may contain a number of chemicals that could negatively impact waterways. Among them are the following:

  • Phthalates are found in a range of cleaning products used for a variety of purposes. They may cause birth defects and damage sperm.
  • Alkylphenol ethoxylates are surfactants found in some cleaning solutions. They can damage glands and the reproductive systems of both humans and wildlife.
  • Endocrine disruptors can impact human hormones, possibly resulting in permanent damage.
  • Zinc and other heavy metals can be found in many traditional floor finishes. What could be termed “casual” contact with these products typically only has limited health risks. But when zinc builds up in waterways, it can have a detrimental impact on aquatic life.

These are only a sampling of the ingredients found in traditional cleaning solutions that could cause damage to waterways and aquatic, animal and human life. Today, the main green cleaning chemical certification agencies in North America—GreenGuard, Green Seal and UL Environment’s ECOLOGO program—now prohibit or limit the use of these ingredients, plus many others, in order for a cleaning product to be certified as green.

Understanding Green Certification

All of these organizations have helped protect waterways and make green cleaning products safer for humans and the environment. But while the green criteria and standards of the three organizations may be similar, they are not identical. Over time, these certification organizations have put focus on different issues, including the protection of waterways.

For instance, while all of the certification organizations have standards and criteria designed to help protect indoor air quality, GreenGuard puts the most emphasis on this issue and on the indoor use of cleaning solutions. If a school district is concerned about the indoor air quality impact of traditional or green cleaning solutions on the children and teachers in its schools, it likely would be advised to select products that are dual-certified—certified by both GreenGuard and ECOLOGO or Green Seal.

When it comes to protecting waterways, Green Seal has created an entire standard, GS-51, that focuses on laundry products for institutional use. Its standards also include criteria prohibiting the use of some of the ingredients found in cleaning solutions, including alkylphenol ethoxylates, zinc and other heavy metals, endocrine disruptors, and phthalates.

All three of the major green cleaning certification organizations are doing their part to help reduce the amount of chemical ingredients that find their way into North America’s waterways. Administrators should keep in mind that different certification organizations put more focus on certain issues when selecting a green certified cleaning product of any kind. 

About the Author

Mike Sawchuck