Helping Kids Breathe Easier: Campaigns to Rid Schools of Toxins Promote Eco-Friendly Cleaners
Patti Wood has always been serious about keeping toxins away from her family.
She cleans her house only with non-toxic, environmentally friendly cleaners, avoiding petrochemicals and other synthetic ingredients in favor of all-natural products. She keeps pesticides out of her yard and garden, and shops organic for almost all the food in her home - including the cat food! Concerned about toxins in her neighborhood when her daughters were small, Patti created a pesticide-free buffer zone around her family's house by speaking with each of her neighbors about the dangers of pesticides, convincing everyone on her street to go all-natural with their lawn care.
Still, as careful as Patti is at home, her daughters spent huge portions of their time at school. One day, while Patti was tending the organic garden she'd started at her daughter's elementary school, a groundskeeper approached, spray can of pesticides strapped to his back, ready to fumigate. Patti turned him away, but the experience taught her that to create a truly toxin-free environment for her children, she'd have to work on reforming their school as well.
"That day in the garden encouraged Patti to go to the school administration and start making changes," says her husband Doug, recounting the tale. "This was supposed to be an organic garden, and she saw it as a way of showing people that a lot of the chemicals we use just aren't really necessary."
Today, with their children grown, Patti and Doug Wood run Grassroots Environmental Education, a Port Washington-based nonprofit that goes beyond pesticides in showing people how the use of toxic chemicals is not really necessary. With a major initiative teaching parents about the importance of using non-toxic cleaners in schools, Grassroots has spent the last six years leading the way toward a healthier, more environmentally friendly school system in New York state.
"Children are uniquely vulnerable to toxins in a way that adults aren't," says Doug Wood. "People think of children as little adults, but they're not. Physiologically they're still developing, and behaviorally they interact with their environment in ways adults do not. They roll on the floor, they put their hands in their mouths, they put their heads down on the desks. That's why it's so important for parents to be concerned about the kinds of cleaning products used in their children's schools."
Why Green Cleaners? The switch to greener cleaners provides a host of benefits for schools, and benefits society at large from the beginning to end of the supply chain, protecting workers from handling toxic chemicals at production plants and during use, and keeping toxins from washing into the environment after use.
"Treating our commons - the air and water and natural systems - as infinitely capable of absorbing insult no longer works," says Arthur Weissman, president and CEO of Green Seal, Inc., which certifies environmentally friendly cleaning products. "The human body, it turns out, can be very sensitive to chemicals that it has not evolved or adapted to, and the same holds true for all the living systems with which we share this planet."
Rochelle Davis, director of the Chicago-based Healthy Schools Campaign, cites four clear reasons why green cleaning in schools is important. Greener cleaning products, Davis says, help students stay healthy and learn better at school, protect the health of school custodial staff, increase the lifespan of facilities, and help preserve the environment.
"Students spend most of their waking hours in school," says Davis. "It is appropriate for parents to inquire of their principal, or someone at the district level, about the cleaners being used in their children's schools. To pick just one example, [according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] students miss 14 million days of school [in America each year] because of asthma exacerbated by poor indoor air quality. This can often be tied to the types of products being used in a school."
What's more, a 2002 study co-sponsored by the U.S. Environ-mental Protection Agency and several California city governments found that six of every 100 janitors loses time from work due to an on-the-job chemical injury each year, with injuries ranging from respiratory problems to burns to eye irritation.
The list of toxic ingredients commonly found in conventional cleaning products is long.
Sodium hypochlorite, found in all-purpose cleaners and chlorine bleach products, can cause asthmatic symptoms and other respiratory problems. Ammonia-based products can irritate the eyes and lungs and cause headaches. Formaldehyde, used as a preservative in many conventional cleaning products, is a suspected human carcinogen. Perhaps most commonly, the non-essential fragrances found in many conventional cleaning products can trigger asthma.
Relative to their size, children take in more of these contaminants through repeated exposure than adults, which increases their risk for the health problems associated with conventional cleaning products. (Concerned parents can look up the negative health effects of just about any conventional cleaning product ingredient in Environmental Defense's database)
Signs of the Shift Starting this September, by a first-of-its-kind state mandate, all public schools in the state of New York will be required by law to use environmentally friendly cleaners as certified by Green Seal.
Some cities, like Santa Monica, California, and Chicago, Illinois, have already adopted their own greener cleaners initiatives for local school systems, and report great success. Santa Monica, for example, reports that annual expenditures on cleaning products have actually decreased by five percent since implementing its policy more than a decade ago, and Chicago schools report three percent fewer student absences due to illness since implementing a policy two years ago.
Rochelle Davis cites alliances between parents, custodial unions, and concerned citizens as key to Chicago adopting its green cleaning standards. She notes that the plan began as a pilot project in 10 schools, as green cleaning proponents worked to counter the common misperceptions that eco-friendly products are less effective than conventional products or are prohibitively expensive.
"Those are two common barriers that are easy to overcome once schools have experience with the products," says Davis. "Plus, our mayor is very committed to environmental stewardship, so Chicago had other pilots running in libraries and city-run facilities at the time, showing how effective and competitively priced green cleaners can be; it's not just schools."
Anthony Crisafulli, vice president of ATRA Janitorial Company in New Jersey, agrees with Davis. He's been a cleaning products supplier for almost 25 years and sees the switch to greener cleaners as the most significant change yet in his industry. "Once schools find out these products work as well as conventional products with their chemical ingredients known to be liver and kidney toxins, known to cause learning disabilities and so forth, they say, 'Why in the world would we keep using them?' says Crisafulli, who has seen about 35 New Jersey schools shift their cleaning supplies to green alternatives in the past two years.
"I absolutely think it's only a matter of time before New Jersey mandates this by law like New York has, and then the other states will follow," says Crisafulli. "That's certainly been the trend."
In fact, New Jersey did mandate last January that state offices use green cleaners. With growing awareness and citizen pressure, the prospects are good that schools in New Jersey - and beyond - will also be required to meet green cleaner standards. Andrew Korfhage is an associate editor for Co-op America, a nonprofit membership organization that educates consumers about socially and environmentally responsible purchasing and investing. His editorials on sustainability topics appear in small- to mid-sized newspapers around the country. He cleans his own floors with all-natural castille soap scented with eucalyptus and tea tree oils.
Reprinted with the permission of the Center for a New American Dream. © New American Dream.
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