By Dorothy Wigmore

Clean schools are important. So are healthy schools. Yet the chemicals used to clean, sanitize and disinfect (see the box for definitions) to prevent illness in schools can have serious health effects, especially for children.

Cleaners have short-and longer-term effects

Cleaning product chemicals can have short-term effects, such as:

  • Irritating, itchy or burning eyes.
  • Skin rashes, allergies and burns.
  • Dizziness and headaches.
  • Nose bleeds.
  • Sore throat, coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath.

Longer-term effects linked to cleaning chemicals include:

  • Skin disorders.
  • Respiratory diseases (especially asthma).
  • Allergies.
  • Harm to the brain, nervous system, reproductive organs, kidneys and liver.

A 2009 Environmental Working Group (EWG) study found 21 cleaning products released 457 different contaminants to indoor air in 13 California school districts. The study also found many fewer toxic chemicals in certified “green” cleaning products.

Cleaning workers have the highest rates of work-related asthma, nearly double other workers. Ingredients that cause or trigger asthma- asthmagens-include chlorine bleach, quaternary ammonium compounds (aka quats, substances with names like benzalkonium chloride), glutaraldehyde, peracetic acid (aka peroxyacetic acid). Air “fresheners” are common hazardous products that lead to asthma reactions.

Just last year, Norwegian scientists published an alarming study showing that the lung function of women regularly using cleaning sprays was similar to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day; they also had higher asthma rates. This followed a 2017 study showing nurses using disinfectants at least once a week had a 24 to 32% increased chance of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) over eight years, compared to nurses using the products less often.

These chemicals don’t affect just cleaning staff. Data from the California Department of Public Health show that only 20% of those with work-related asthma reactions from cleaning products were a cleaner. Eighty percent were in the space while the cleaning was done or just afterward. The chemicals also affect indoor air quality, causing overall absenteeism to increase while productivity goes down.

Is it necessary? What’s the best alternative?

“Is it necessary?” is an important question to ask about health and safety hazards. Before deciding what’s needed to protect workers, first ask if what’s being done or used is necessary. For example, before using a cleaning product that requires protective gear or ventilation, ask for alternatives that don’t need the often-expensive protective solutions.

The International Sanitary Supply Association (ISSA) defines green cleaning as “cleaning to protect health without harming the environment.” That approach answers the key question, “Is it necessary to use toxic cleaning products?” Finding a truly less toxic method or product, known as “informed substitution” avoids greenwashing, or fake “green” solutions.

Truly green products are certified by independent third parties to meet human and environmental health criteria. The two main U.S. certificates are Green Seal and Ecologo. (For short cuts, use the San Francisco Environment Department or New York State lists; see resources.)

Schools are increasingly going this route. ISSA worked with the Healthy Schools Campaign in Chicago to survey green cleaning practices at U.S. educational institutions in 2018. Results included:

  • Almost all had some type of green cleaning program.
  • Most worry about the costs of cleaning and maintenance and health and safety.
  • Seventy-five percent of those schools with green cleaning programs said two key results were reduced absenteeism/improved health and reduced costs.
  • Less than half have a formal green cleaning policy.
  • About 40% of schools with a policy used only green cleaning products for all tasks, compared to just 6% without a policy.

Most schools in the survey have gone beyond chemicals. Floor scrubbers and microfiber cloths were two top choices.

Microfiber products are a great informed substitute for toxic chemical cleaners. They act like dust magnets, collecting more dust and germs than string mops. They need to be laundered and dried separately to be effective. The cloths or mops:

  • Used dry, are very effective for dusting.
  • With plain water, can get rid of 99% of bacteria (so they’re great for disinfecting and sanitizing).
  • Require 95% less water and cleaning chemicals (especially if a chemical is sprayed directly onto the cloth).
  • Clean 10% more in the same time.
  • Last five to 10 times longer and cost less.
  • Cause fewer worker injuries than traditional methods (since custodians don’t have to lift heavy mop buckets).

The other key to green cleaning is to integrate health and safety activities with those of purchasing staff. Environmentally preferable, sustainable, or green purchasing is not effective unless it really pays attention to workers’ health too. (See “Resources” sidebar.)

What’s a local association to do?

Local associations can play a key role in making sure that school district staff and students are protected from toxic cleaning products. Build on existing Sustainable Jersey for Schools activities by working with the district to make, use and evaluate a green cleaning program that uses third-party certified products or non-toxic methods in an “informed substitution” framework.

Get the local association’s health and safety committee and district purchasing staff involved in developing, using, and evaluating the program. Visit for more information.

Local association should advocate for purchasing policies that avoid:

  • Asthmagens/sensitizers, carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive toxins (CMRs), endocrine disruptors, and environmental toxins.
  • Enzymes (allowed by Green Seal), quats (allowed by Ecologo), and fragrances.
  • Spray products.
  • Disinfectants, unless really needed for high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs, and then use the least toxic product (Visit and scroll to Appendix A in “Healthy Cleaning and Asthma-Safer Schools: A How-To Guide.”)
  • Stripping floors more than once a year (unless really needed).

Local associations should ensure that their school districts use only disinfectants with hydrogen peroxide, citric acid, lactic acid, or caprylic acid. Procedures for cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting should be clarified (See “What’s cleaning?” sidebar.)

If necessary, insist on a change in the frequency, technique or time when cleaning is done. Some green cleaners, for example, need a bit more time to work. For large quantities of cleaning products, use concentrates with automatic closed loop dilution systems that prevent exposure to hazardous concentrates.

Local associations should ensure that only authorized and trained staff clean the school. Parents and staff should not be bringing in their own disinfectants to use in schools. The association should ensure that the district trains custodial staff about application, mixing, dilution and disposal and educate other staff about the green cleaning plan.

A local association health and safety committee can find and check third-party certified products (See “Resources” sidebar). Noting that 80% of dirt, pesticides and debris come into a school building on footwear, insist on the placement of walk-off mats at entrances.

To find out more about the role of the local association, attend the NJEA Health and Safety Conference at the Somerset Doubletree on Oct. 4 – 5. NJEA Health & Safety Conference

You may also wish to attend a workshop at the NJEA Convention on this topic. Look for “Cleaning Our Schools: Getting Products Good for Our Health,” at the NJEA Convention on Friday, Nov. 8, 3:15 – 4:45 p.m., in Room 406 of the Atlantic City Convention Center.

What’s “cleaning”?

Cleaner: Removes germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces or objects. Works by using soap/detergent, water and friction to physically remove dirt and germs from surfaces. Cleaning before disinfecting reduces spreading infection more than disinfecting alone.

Sanitizer: Reduces germs on surfaces to levels considered safe for public health (usually 99.99%). Products must be EPA registered.

Disinfectant: Destroys almost all infectious germs, when used as the label directs on a surface. No effect on dirt, soil, or dust. Should be used where required by law, in high-risk and high-touch areas, or in case of infectious disease. Products must be EPA registered.

No smell is a good smell

Green cleaning products are often color and fragrance free. Traditional cleaning products have added color and fragrances that can cause throat irritation and breathing difficulty. For this reason, green cleaning products do not always have strong scents.

(Source: “General Green Cleaning,” San Francisco Environment Fact Sheet: Module 1 Introduction.

Avoid using bleach – it can harm

Like many disinfectants, bleach is often used unnecessarily as a daily cleaner. Bleach is an asthmagen, which means it may cause asthma, and can make existing asthma worse. It also is corrosive and can damage eyes and skin. Bleach can be fatal if swallowed, gives off a potent vapor, and if mixed with ammonia or acids, can create gases that cause lung damage and death.

(Source: “Healthy Cleaning and Asthma-Safe Schools: A How-To Guide,” California Work-related Asthma Prevention Program, 2014.

Dorothy Wigmore is a long-time health and safety specialist, trained in occupational hygiene, ergonomics, work organization/stress and education. A Canadian, she has worked also in the U.S. and Mozambique, and been involved in efforts to prevent and deal with job-related hazards for many years.


Note: website links are case-sensitive.


“Greening at the Grass Roots: Green Cleaning,” American Federation of Teachers.

Work-related Asthma Prevention Program (materials in various languages), California Department of Public Health.

“Fragrances and work-related asthma: Information for workers,” California Department of Public Health.

“Disinfectants can cause asthma,” California Department of Public Health.

Green Clean Schools program (including the “Quick + Easy Guide to Green Cleaning in Schools”), Healthy Schools Campaign.

Informed Green Solutions.

“Green cleaning policy and plan,” Sustainable Jersey for Schools,

“Tools for informed substitution: How do you find safer chemicals for the workplace?” Wigmorising.

Green cleaning products (certified, third-party) and methods

“Cleaning with microfiber makes classrooms asthma-safer for all,” California Work-Related Asthma Prevention Program (WRAPP)

Green Seal.

Green cleaning program (for products, cost calculator), New York State.

“SF Approved,” San Francisco Department of Environment.

UL, Ecologo and other certifications: (You must register, for free.)

Purchasing help

“Healthy Purchasing for Healthy Schools,” Healthy Schools Network.

“Responsible purchasing guide: Cleaners, 2nd edition,” Responsible Purchasing Network.

For homes

“EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning,” Environmental Working Group (EWG),

“Safe cleaning products,” Women’s Voices for the Earth.

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