Guest Article – Green Cleaning at School: New Toolkit for Workers, Schools, and Communities

By Claire Barnett
November 10, 2010

Keeping schools clean is hard work with both ‘elbow grease’ and cleaning products. But unfortunately, in most schools, they are also subjecting themselves—and vulnerable children—to a dangerous mix of toxic chemicals that can cause injury and illnesses. The National Collaborative Work Group on Green Cleaning and Chemical Policy Reform (the Collaborative), a partnership of labor, health, and environment groups, is helping schools nationwide switch to certified green cleaning products: safer, less toxic products that still get the job done very effectively. Certification standards are set to rate products for comprehensive environment and human health protection and ensure the products actually work.

Every school day, 20 percent of the nation is in a school building. That’s 56 million children and seven million adults (3/4 of them women) packed into 130,000 facilities. Schools are four times more densely occupied than office buildings, and more heavily used. Children are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals than adults.

Many people mistakenly believe that cleaning these busy and crowded buildings requires harsh, industrial-strength products. A whopping 25% of chemicals found in cleaning products used in schools are hazardous. Many of these products are extremely dangerous to mix and use and can cause serious burns to the eyes or skin. In fact, these burns represent 20 percent of reported injuries to custodial workers.

Hazardous chemicals are also a threat in less obvious ways. Fumes and residues from cleaning products pollute the air inside school buildings, with effects ranging from headaches and dizziness to cancer and asthma. It’s not surprising to learn that custodians—who are in the most frequent and direct contact with cleaning chemicals—have one of the highest occupational asthma rates among all workers. Teachers and other staff suffer too, and so do the children they work so hard to educate, who are more vulnerable than adults are to chemical threats.

There is a better way to clean our schools.

Green cleaning is safe, affordable, and effective. To help schools phase in the use of certified green cleaning products now required by law for all public and private schools in New York State and City, the Collaborative has designed a free, online and unique training tool to help schools and child care centers: the Cleaning for Healthy Schools Toolkit. Produced without any input from the chemical industry and field tested in ten states, including with child care workers in the Bronx, the Toolkit is a practical guide that can be customized to meet the particular needs of different schools or audiences.

AFSCME Local 1707 was one of the first groups to test the Toolkit materials.
In addition to AFSCME, the Collaborative’s labor representatives are New York State United Teachers, MassCOSH, the National Association of School Nurses, and the American Federation of Teachers, in addition to Healthy Schools Network, INFORM, Green Purchasing Institute, and Green Schools Initiative and the National Education Association – Health Information Network.

For information please visit the Toolkit’s web at and listen/watch a presentation on how to get started and how to avoid hazardous products in schools

November 10, 2010

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