City Council committee OKs resolution requiring janitors to use less-toxic cleaning products when cleaning city buildings
Swing open enough restroom doors and it's bound to hit you eventually: that fruity, pungent nip of a freshly cleaned facility.
It's not the least pleasant odor possible in such a space, but public health advocates say exposure to many of the chemicals commonly used to clean bathrooms, offices, lobbies and other areas can make some people sick.
A group of city employees is nearing completion of an across-the-board search for safer, less-toxic alternatives - from window spray to mop bucket mix - that get the job done but also take a lesser toll on the health of employees and the environment.
And as they do so, the City Council will considered a resolution Oct. 20 that would require all city departments switch to less-toxic cleaners by Jan. 1.
“The janitorial industry in general has a lot of workplace injuries, and a lot of them revolve around chemicals,” said Javier Morillo, president of the Service Employees International Union, Local 26, which represents 4,200 janitors in the metro area. “Sometimes it's negligence, and sometimes it's just using very strong chemicals.”
About six in 100 janitors are injured annually by exposure to chemicals, according to the Janitorial Products Pollution Prevention Project, a safety program sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Skin and eye burns are the most common, followed by inhaling toxic fumes.
In Minnesota, janitors, cleaners, maids and housekeeping staff since January 2003 have made 45 workers' compensation indemnity claims for skin contact or inhalation of chemicals, according to the Department of Labor and Industry.
Indemnity claims usually involve more than three days missed work with total or partial disability.
Ingredient lists on about one-third of cleaning products contain harmful chemicals, the janitorial safety project reports. The highest risks include:
- Glass and surface cleaners, as well as carpet spot removers, often contain butoxyethanol, a poison that absorbs through skin and can damage blood, liver and kidneys.
- Toilet cleaners frequently contain hydrochloric or phosphoric acid, which are good for removing hard water rings but can blind a person in seconds.
- Many oven cleaners and heavy duty degreasers use sodium hydroxide. The sprays are convenient, but the chemical can cause blindness, and the fumes can damage lungs.
“We know that they can cause ill health effects,” said Catherine Zimmer, a health care specialist with the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health.
While the occupational hazards for janitorial workers are better documented, others can experience symptoms from strong chemicals, too, Zimmer said.
Children and people with weakened immune systems are most at risk, she said. Aside from causing runny noses, teary eyes and headaches, the chemicals can also irritate asthma.
“With asthma, especially if you're cleaning an enclosed area like a bathroom, it's not uncommon for it to asseverate that,” Morillo said.
A group of health and environmental organizations approached the city a couple years ago about investigating the use of less toxic cleaning solutions.
“It would reduce the exposure to chemicals for custodial staff, visitors and white collar workers, and also what's brought home on clothing and possibly exposed to children,” said Julia Early, program director of Preventing Harm Minnesota, a nonprofit that works on children's environmental health issues.
The city's Property Services Division was already working with the Minneapolis Convention Center on experimenting with safer products.
“We thought if it can't perform in the convention center, that would be a good test,” said Greg Goeke, facilities manager with property services.
The Green Seal Institute simplified the process by beginning to certify products that meet a set of health and environmental standards. That left the city to figure out which products worked well and were cost-effective.
“We tried a lot of different products,” said Randy Rasmussen, facilities manager at the convention center.
Some of the new products didn't contain dyes or perfumes, which, in some cases, made it confusing for workers to tell the products apart from each other. The city found a set of liquid cleaners from Ecolab that contain a different color dye for each product so workers who can't read labels can differentiate among them.
Among the criteria for Green Seal certification is that products are not harmful to skin or eyes in their diluted forms. They cannot contain known carcinogens or reproductive hazards. A list of chemicals including chlorine are banned, and there are limits on the volume and intensity of fumes given off by a product.
“We formulate our chemicals to be in that zone regardless,” said Colleen Dillon, Ecolab's vice president of marketing for hospitality and health care.
Goeke said the city uses about 20 different cleaning products, and they've identified successful, affordable Green Seal alternatives for about two-thirds.
“We want to get as close to 100 percent as we can,” Rasmussen said.
The industry has grown significantly in the past few years to meet the needs of the growing list of cities and businesses looking for greener cleaning products.
Prices have also dropped as more companies develop less-toxic products.
With the Property Service Division and convention center having spent a couple years working out kinks already, officials believe they can go citywide next year.
The pending resolution would require all city departments to use Green Seal cleaning products unless the safer substitute doesn't perform adequately or isn't available within 10 percent of the conventional product's cost.
Council Member Scott Benson, who introduced the resolution with Council Member Cam Gordon, said he was unaware of opposition, and he didn't expect any transition complications because of the work the city has already done.
Diana McKeown, program director for Clean Water Action in Minnesota, said it's an exciting step for the City Council, one she hopes will inspire others.
“I think once the city does it, it gives another example of how it can be done,” McKeown said.
Morillo, whose union's members do not work in city buildings, said he also hopes it will set an example and cause a ripple effect among business.
“It's a good step for the city to take,” Morillo said. “I expect it will open an opportunity for private industry.”
Dillon said government and commercial cleaners have been buying more green cleaning products in recent years. Other markets are mixed in their embrace of green cleaners.
Dan Haugen can be reached at [email protected] and 436-5088.