Green Cleaning in Schools


Asthma that is triggered or worsened by exposures to certain cleaning products in schools (such as floor strippers and disinfectants that contain asthmagenic ingredients) is an emerging public health issue in California. There are over 600,000 students in California with asthma. Inside the schools, the exposures to the cleaning products are almost ubiquitous. On the average, a child spends 1,300 hours in the school each year; teachers and other school employees spend even more time. The custodians of the schools use institutionally formulated cleaning products while the teachers and support staff bring and use household cleaning products including disinfectant sprays, sanitizing wipes, and room deodorizers.

Research has identified that certain ingredients in cleaning products including 2-butoxyethanol, phthalates, alkyl-phenol ethoxylates, mono-ethanolamine, chlorhexedine, and ammonium quaternary disinfectants to be asthma triggers. Several modifiable factors related to the use of and exposures to cleaning products include the lack of a school policy, knowledge deficit, and peer influence. The San Francisco Unified School District with over 160 schools in its jurisdiction have so far addressed the problem (since 2009) in a piecemeal fashion — only 43 schools have been provided with the safer environmentally preferable products (only 25% of all public schools in the county).

Several stakeholders including the labor unions (teachers and custodians in the district), manufacturers of cleaning products, coalitions, and school-based green cleaning organizations are involved in changing the status quo, i.e., greening the school district. However, the process is painfully slow and is hampered by a mix of funding limitation, clashing priorities, and redundant bureaucracy.

The school district and its allies should endeavor to settle the barriers and the disparate agenda of the stakeholders in order to implement its best practice program to the whole district and not just to a few selected schools. No public school student and employees should have to wait for the protection because of the hair splitting and foot dragging of the decision-makers and influential players.



California Department of Health Services.

California Department of Public Health.

Environmental Protection Agency.

Environmental Working Group.


Nazaroff, W.W., Coleman, B.K., Destaillats, H., Hodgson, A.T., Liu, D., Lunden, M.M., Singer, B.C, & Weschler, C.J. (2006). Indoor air chemistry: Cleaning agents, ozone, and toxic air contaminants. Retrieved from


6 Responses to “Green Cleaning in Schools”

  1. twadhwan Says:

    I appreciate your topic post as this is an emerging Public Health problem that needs more attention. More studies need to be done on the subject as I’m sure we’ll be able to find lots of diseases and problems that can be related to exposure to these harmful chemicals. Starting by informing and educating cleaners and workers that have contact with the cleaning products first hand is a good place to start. Another good strategy is to inform work unions for these cleaners and workers. Hopefully, with more awareness there would be more laws and regulations for these cleaning products.

  2. htanana Says:

    I agree more needs to be done to make schools safe, in terms of the actual building structure, cleaning products used, and physical location. The relationship between cleaning products and asthma reminds me of studies I’ve read about school proximity to major roadways and asthma. I doubt that a lot of parents are aware of these “dangers” – as twadhwan notes, if they were, perhaps there would be a bigger legislative response to ensure action statewide, or even on the federal level.

  3. wordpresstripper Says:

    It’s shocking how few industrial chemicals have been tested for health effects. It’s logical that the cleaning supply chemicals could be contributing to asthma in the students. Especially, with the recent drive to push alcohol-based hand cleaners in classrooms and teachers using more personal cleaning supplies in addition to the school cleaning chemicals, it makes you wonder if our own cleanliness is to blame.

  4. ymassih Says:

    Thanks for this interesting topic! This is indeed one area where a little can go a long way. Currently with all of the budget cuts in California schools I can see where this topic may remain low on the priority scale; however, with young children being more susceptible to these harmful chemicals I agree that they should move more quickly in implementing the greening of the schools!
    Originally I thought that by switching to more “green” cleaning products the school districts will have to spend more money on the cleaning products as well as on implementing their use. However, after I did a little research it looks like the “green” products actually cost the same or even lower than the standard cleaning products!
    See this website for ore information on “Green Cleaning in schools: A Guide for Advocates”

  5. castroiris15 Says:

    This is quite an interesting topic as I haven’t really thought about the adverse effects of cleaning products used in schools. However, when it comes to one’s children, health and safety are top priority. With the number of hours that a child spends in school, much must be done to ensure that children are not exposed to dangerous chemicals. I agree that change begins with being informed and with having knowledge about the possible effects of harsh cleaning chemicals. Green products need to be advocated for as it is our children – a new generation whose health is at stake here.

  6. Adele Houghton Says:

    Green cleaning practices can reduce exposure to toxic chemicals in schools twice over: first by reducing chemical use in cleaning products and second by reducing chemicals used for pest management. Ideally, schools should institute green cleaning programs at the same time as integrated pest management programs, because the two are highly interrelated.

    Integrated pest management (or IPM) is an approach to pest management that uses a combination of structural controls (i.e., removing access points for pests), building maintenance (i.e., fixing leaks), cleaning protocols, and behavior change (i.e., not allowing people to eat at their desk) to control pests rather than relying on toxic pesticides. When infestations are found, pests are trapped or (as a last resort) least toxic pesticides ( may be used.

    The US EPA is a strong supporter of IPM practices in schools, having devoted a portion of their website ( to technical advice specific to the school environment.

    Green cleaning can enhance the success of an IPM program both by increasing the frequency and thoroughness of cleaning procedures in the school and by instituting operating protocols that limit the location of food consumption and storage in areas outside of cafeterias and rooms designated for food preparation.

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