Focusing on the Air We Breathe was published for Thought Leader Mike Sawchuk
Back before 2010, the Asthma Society of Canada reported that “asthma is one of the most prevalent chronic conditions affecting Canadians. Asthma can first be diagnosed at any age, but often starts in childhood.” The Society also adds, “the prevalence of asthma in Canada has been increasing over the last 20 years, and it is estimated that currently, over 3 million Canadians have asthma.”
Reports like this, and the rising number of cases of asthma among children, have prompted many cleaning chemical manufacturers to start introducing green cleaning products, everything from all-purpose cleaners, to floor care cleaners and finishes. These are alternatives to traditional cleaning products that help protect the air breathe.
This is because we know that some of the ingredients found in older cleaning solutions – even though they have served us well – have been tied to poor indoor air quality (IAQ)and allergic reactions that can cause an asthma attack.
Among the key ingredients in traditional cleaning products tied to poor IAQ and allergic reactions are volatile organic compounds, commonly known as VOCs.
Understandably, chemical manufacturers, as well as their end-customers such as school administrators and facility managers in all kinds of facilities, were happy to learn that the VOCs in green cleaning products had either been reduced or eliminated, all of course helping to protect the air we breathe.
Well, not so fast.
Looking more closely, we see that these environmentally preferable cleaning products have helped reduce or eliminate VOCs—but typically more specifically ozone depleting VOCs. These cuts benefit stratospheric ozone, which is six to 30 miles above the Earth’s surface and help reduce the amount of harmful UV radiation reaching the planet.
But these green certified products may have little impact on ambient ozone, that is, the ozone we breathe. So, the custodial workers, children and teachers in a school, and all building users may still be inhaling VOCs and other harmful chemical emissions that can cause some health-related problems or trigger asthma, as well as negatively affect cognitive reactions.
Is this Greenwashing?
Back in 1999, a new word – greenwashing – was added to the Oxford English Dictionary. Defined as “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image,” the word coined by New York environmentalist Jay Westerveld combines the concepts of green and whitewashing.
So, if most chemical manufacturers of green-certified cleaning products are marketing these items on the basis that their green products have few if any VOCs, it appears, by definition, that they are greenwashing. However, we really cannot say this is true because they are following instructions, standards, and criteria based on what most of the green certification organizations have adopted and still enforce.
In other words, the chemical manufacturers are following orders. It’s just that the orders are not entirely correct. Further, many of the standards and criteria for certifying green cleaning products were developed as long ago as the late 1980s. At that time it may not have been understood that even if ozone depleting VOCs can be eliminated, VOCs and harmful chemical emission may still be found in the indoor air we breathe.
Compounding Problems About the Air We Breathe
In 1998 Green Seal was likely the first green certification organization that focused on the professional cleaning industry. Over the years, many more green certification organizations have been created, such as UL Environment, which includes ECOLOGO and GREENGUARD, and the Safer Choice Program, also known as Design for Environment (DfE).
As more green certification organizations were created – and the market for their services got more crowded – they soon realized it was in their best business interest to specialize in different types of green certifications. Some continued to concentrate on cleaning chemicals whereas others put more focus on the sustainability of a product, its cradle to grave impact on the environment, or addressed specific industries such as printing, refrigeration products, etc.
This compounded the IAQ and VOC problem because until recently, most of these certification organizations shared the same standards. They did not focus on IAQ. However, today, at least one of the certification organizations mentioned above, GREENGUARD, has decided to place its emphasis on VOCs and other chemical emissions.
What Facility Managers Can Do
So, does this mean building managers and cleaning professionals should just select GREENGUARD certified products if protecting IAQ is a critical concern? No. And our intent here is not to promote one certification organization over another.
What we do suggest is “dual certification.” Let’s say our first concern is that the cleaning chemicals used in our facility are not made from non-renewable resources and they have been tested and verified to have a reduced impact on human health and the environment. In such a case, we may want to look for either the Green Seal or ECOLOGO “mark” on these products.
However, we are also very concerned about protecting IAQ. In such a case we would want to also look for a cleaning product that bears the GREENGUARD mark. This is an example of dual certification. And for some facilities – such as schools and medical – this may be a more significant issue than others.
It appears that at least some cleaning chemical manufacturers are adopting this dual certification approach. It is their belief that as specialization increasingly takes over the green certification industry, end-users will also look more specifically for cleaning products that address specific issues. And this certainly does apply when it comes to protecting the air we breathe.
Mike Sawchuk is Chief Business Development Officer for Avmor, a leading manufacturer and marketer of professional cleaning products in North America.