Safer Cleaning Practices for Healthy Kids
Carol Westinghouse has experience in environmentally preferable purchasing (EPP) based on her knowledge and background in the health effects of toxic chemicals in the workplace. In 2009 she established Informed Green Solutions. As the manager of the Cleaning for Health program for both INFORM and Informed Green Solutions, she has provided technical assistance to hundreds of schools, colleges, child care centers, etc.
A clean and safe environment is an essential element of the quality early experiences children need for healthy development in the early years. At preschools and child care centers, regular cleaning and disinfecting is very important because infants and young children are constantly putting toys in their mouths. Additionally, the germs they bring in from the outside world can be contagious. However, the products used for disinfecting can be just as important to the children’s health as a regular cleaning schedule.
Our youngest children are most vulnerable to the effects of toxic chemicals. Dr. Philip Landrigan, Chairman of the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine and Director of the Center for Children’s Health and the Environment of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, states, “Hazardous chemicals in cleaning supplies, pesticides, and other products can pollute indoor air, unnecessarily exposing students to harm. This exposure is compounded by the vulnerability of children to environmental toxins. Pound for pound of body weight, children have greater exposure to toxins because they drink more water, eat more food and breathe more air than adults.”1
The body of a young child is not yet fully developed in its ability to break down and eliminate toxins—especially in the first months after birth. Children’s brains, organs and bodies are experiencing rapid growth and development during this time, and exposure to toxins can negatively disrupt the process or even cause chronic illness. We know 80% of a child's brain is developed by age 3, meaning exposure can be a serious problem. Research tells us that some ingredients in common cleaning products are associated with asthma, endocrine disruption, cancer, birth defects, neurological and respiratory disorders and other diseases.
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of New England states that, “fumes from household cleaners, paint, perfumes, gasoline, and art supplies with odors” aggravate or trigger asthma.
“[There is great concern about] the large numbers of children who are affected by toxic damage to brain development in the absence of a formal diagnosis,” states Philippe Grandjean of the Harvard School of Public Health. “They suffer reduced attention span, delayed development, and poor school performance. Industrial chemicals are now emerging as likely causes.”2
In June 2014, Governor Peter Shumlin signed into law S.92 requiring anyone who sells products or provides services for cleaning a school (public or independent educational establishment) to sell or use only certified green products. These are defined as products certified by a “nationally recognized organization that has developed a program for the purpose of certifying environmentally preferable cleaning products.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends “choosing less hazardous products that have positive environmental attributes (e.g., biodegradability, low toxicity, low volatile organic compound (VOC) content, reduced packaging, low life cycle energy use) and taking steps to reduce exposure [to] minimize harmful impacts.” While this law does not yet include child care centers or home care providers, Informed Green Solutions is currently working to implement a green star to accompany the STARS rating system. This would mean that improvements to the indoor air quality, including safer cleaning and sanitizing practices, would earn them additional points toward their STARS (STep Ahead Recognition System) level.
Green cleaning not only promotes children’s health and ability to succeed academically, it’s also environmentally friendly and a practical move for early care and education programs looking to clean their buildings in an efficient and cost-effective way. After making the switch to green cleaning, some schools in Vermont have reported fewer instances of asthma cases, nausea, and headaches, and others have reported saving money on the cost of cleaning supplies.
Once the basic health needs of children are met in their care situations, work can begin on meeting more complex needs such as cognitive and social development and developing positive self-esteem. Ensuring that Vermont’s children have the best chance to grow and flourish includes using green cleaning products and practices.
1 Letter from Dr. Philip Landrigan to the Vermont Senate in support of green cleaning legislation. 2011.
2 Grandjean, P. and P.J. Landrigan, Developmental neurotoxicity of industrial chemicals. The Lancet, 2006. 368(9553): p. 2167-2178.