I highly recommend reading a recent report released by the Missoula, Mont.-based Women’s Voices for the Earth (downloadable at the end of this column). The study, entitled “Household Hazards: Potential Hazards of Home Cleaning Products,” documents the hidden dangers in many of the cleaning products typically used in our homes and lodging facilities. The report should be a wake-up call to any property that has not yet transitioned to green cleaning products.
The report links chemicals found in commonly used cleaning fluids and sprays to asthma and reproductive harm. It identifies the specific chemicals to avoid and explains where they are typically found. It is important information because product labels and even Material Safety Data Sheets do not always include a list of all chemicals present. The law requires that only those hazardous ingredients present in levels above 1 percent (or one-tenth of 1 percent for carcinogens and neurotoxins) be disclosed.
For the sake of your housekeepers and janitorial staff, you really should know what they are working with. I realize it may be intimidating to try to understand what some of the following words mean—monoethanolamine (MEA), ammonium quaternary compounds, glycol ethers, alkyl phenol ethoxylates, and phthalates—but you should. MEA, for example, is a surfactant found in some laundry detergents, all-purpose cleaners and floor cleaners and is a known inducer of occupational asthma.
Risks Increase in Enclosed Areas
“There are concerns with the volatile nature of cleaning product chemicals because they evaporate into the air we breathe,” the report says. “This problem is exacerbated when we clean in small unventilated spaces such as a windowless bathroom, where levels of cleaning chemicals in the air can be highly concentrated.” That scenario is certainly familiar to any housekeeper—many times a day, unfortunately. In bathrooms where there are no ventilation fans, the hazards are even worse.
The study says that cleaning products also have an impact on water quality. Many chemicals survive the sewage system intact and are released into streams. One U.S. Geological Survey showed that nearly 70 percent of the streams tested contained breakdown products of detergents, while 66 percent contained disinfectants.
The impact of cleaning chemicals on women is especially important to Women’s Voices for the Earth. As anyone in the lodging industry knows, it is women who come into close contact with cleaning chemicals most often. One study conducted in San Francisco found that 99 percent of hotel housekeepers were women. (For 95 percent of those women, English was listed as a second language.)
Proven Health Risks
Women who do or have done cleaning work have a much higher prevalence of asthma than women who have never done this type of work. When a pregnant mother is exposed to certain chemicals in cleaning products, the exposure can impact the developing child and lead to developmental defects such as birth defects, low birth weight, impacts on cognitive development, or other harmful outcomes. When you train your housekeepers, do you warn them about these possibilities? Do you remind them with signage or in other ways?
The three groups of cleaning chemicals of most concern include glycol ethers (found in degreasing products, among others), alkylphenol ethoxylates (found in laundry detergents and all-purpose cleaners), and phthlates (found in floor cleaners and window cleaners).
Short of hiring a chemist, the best way to stay safe is to buy cleaning products with labels that tell you everything the products contain. Know what those ingredients are. Don’t hesitate to question your supplier or the manufacturer. You, and your employees, will be glad you did.
To download the “Household Hazards: Potential Hazards of Home Cleaning Products” study, click here.
As always, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.