As most parents know, childhood asthma is on the rise. In fact, 1 in 10 American kids now develops this chronic health condition during childhood. If your child is fortunate enough to be asthma-free, chances are she or he has at least one school or daycare buddy with the disease.
And it’s not just kids. Turns out teachers also suffer significantly higher rates of this life-threatening condition. So as researchers and children’s health advocates at Environmental Working Group, we wanted to know whether the cleaning supplies used in schools might have something to do with this trend, since they’re a common source of indoor air contaminants.
The Bad News First: Common school cleaners dirty the classroom air
To better understand the potential link between asthma and school cleaners, we ordered up sophisticated air pollution tests for 21 common school cleaning products. These tests showed that as a group, these 21 products release into the air no fewer than 457 distinct chemicals. 457! And six of them are known to cause asthma in otherwise healthy people.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by these results: Studies of folks who clean for a living find increasing evidence that asthma developed on the job is often linked to exposure to common cleaning supplies. Cleaning products can also trigger an asthma attack.
EWG’s tests found chemicals in cleaners that are associated with even more disturbing health problems. Eleven are known, probable or possible human carcinogens. We also detected reproductive toxins, neurotoxins and hormone disrupters in commonly used cleaning supplies.
As it happens, it’s not just the cleaners used in schools. Some of the products we had tested are also under the sink in millions of American homes. One of them, Comet Disinfectant Powder Cleanser, released 143 contaminants into the air – including formaldehyde, benzene, chloroform and four others that California has formally identified as causers of cancer or reproductive problems. Yuck.
It only makes sense to keep noxious chemicals out of the air wherever young (and not-so-young) children spend a lot of time. Students who stay after school for extra-curricular activities probably get an extra dose of cleaning pollutants since custodians often do a lot of their work after classes let out. Because children’s developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals, schools rank high on our list of places that should be free of preventable, lung-damaging air pollution.
The Good News: There are effective greener alternatives
EWG’s study also looked at “certified green” cleaning products to see if they were less likely to release potentially harmful contaminants. Independent organizations that review products according to health-based standards (Green Seal and EcoLogo) had given them high marks. Both in individual product tests and in simulated classroom cleaning situations where we compared them with conventional cleaners, the certified green supplies emitted fewer toxic chemicals.
Overall, cleaning a classroom with conventional cleaners emitted six times more air contamination (measured as volatile organic compounds) than cleaning with green cleaners. Six times!! But EWG’s tests showed that even some products certified as green had undesirable emissions, indicating that the certification process isn’t airtight.
What’s a parent to do? Advocate for change, of course! It’s easy, and the arguments are compelling.