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Green cleaning for health: why it matters

Green cleaning is about more than simply switching conventional cleaning products for more sustainable alternatives, writes GECA’s Emma Berthold*.

It makes a lot of sense to use ‘green’ cleaning products in healthcare facilities ­– what’s good for the planet is often better for people, too. If health, wellbeing and recovery are the primary functions for a particular place, facilities management and cleaning staff need to choose products that will promote good health as much as possible.

‘Green’ cleaning products typically contain fewer harsh chemicals, or may even use chemistries that are almost entirely water-based, without compromising on product effectiveness.

Many common compounds found in conventional products can have a range of adverse effects on health, ranging from the mild (such as minor skin irritation) to the very serious (such as being a potential carcinogen).

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a classic example. They’re one of the main culprits behind Sick Building Syndrome, where occupants of a building complain of headaches, fatigue and other symptoms that disappear after leaving the building.

Poor indoor air quality has been linked to decreased work productivity, poorer brain function, and has had an impact on academic performance for school students – everyone feels the effects.

The health issues caused by VOCs in indoor environments depend on the amount of VOCs present in the air, the length of time they are present, and how frequently people are exposed to them.

Symptoms may be very different if a person is exposed to a high level of a particular compound for a brief period of time, compared to someone who is cumulatively exposed to smaller doses for longer. Those more sensitive to chemicals, such as asthmatics, will obviously be affected more strongly under most circumstances.

Triclosan is another compound found in a wide range of cleaning and personal care products that can have serious health repercussions. Some studies examining the effects of triclosan on animals have shown that exposure to high levels of the compound is associated with interference with certain hormones, including estrogen and thyroid hormones.

Other studies have linked triclosan to the growth of liver tumours in mice. Numerous studies have linked triclosan use with the rise of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, representing a potential public health risk.

Even the humble paper towel can contain some potentially harmful substances. Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, can be present in small amounts in paper towels thanks to the need for wet strength agents in the product.

Wet strength agents are included in paper products that are designed to come into contact with moisture, and they help the product maintain ‘wet strength’ – the ability to stay held together when exposed to water. It all depends on exactly which wet strength agents are used as to whether they can be classified as potentially harmful.

The best way to know that a product is better for people and planet, while still being fit for purpose, is to look for evidence of third-party certification, such as the Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) ecolabel. The ecolabel demonstrates that a product has been independently tested to ensure that it does not contain potentially harmful substances, and – most importantly – will still do the job.

GECA has seen an increase in the number of cleaning and personal care products seeking certification in recent years, suggesting that manufacturers are responding to increased demand for low-impact cleaning solutions.

At the end of the day, green cleaning is about more than simply switching conventional cleaning products for more sustainable alternatives. It’s also about remembering the very purpose of cleaning, and considering different strategies to minimise any unintended consequences while still achieving the desired outcome.

This approach extends to the design of an entire building, from its architecture to its day-to-day operations, and includes choosing better surface materials that are easier to clean and lowering exposure to any harmful substances that may be found in conventional products.

A holistic approach to green cleaning in healthcare will ensure that staff and patients alike are in the healthiest environment possible.

*Emma Berthold is communications officer at Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA)

This first appeared in the May/June issue of INCLEAN magazine. To subscribe, click here. 

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