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Learn from a Pro at Non-Toxic Cleaning

Scott Stove, veteran custodian for Burnaby schools, is a student of dangerous chemicals. Fourth in a reader-funded series.

Amanda Euringer 20 Jul

Amanda Euringer, a journalist based on Bowen Island, British Columbia, received a $5,000 grant to pursue this series from the independent panel that reviews applications to the Tyee Fellowship funds.

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Scott Stove: Green Mr. Clean. Photo by Christopher Grabowski.

Scott Stove winces when he thinks about all the chemicals he has poured down the sewer during his 30 years in the cleaning industry. He remembers watching fellow custodians make their own wax removers for the floors by filling up garbage bins with floor soap, raw THP, cans of Comet, and entire jugs of industrial ammonia. They would then take a broom handle and stir until there was no paint left.

"Yah, the wax came off the floor all right. It jumped," says Stove who is now the manager of facilities services for Burnaby School District 41, "but I felt sick and the crew felt sick. That's caustic soda, and we just poured what we didn't use down the drain. To this day I just cringe."

For Stove, the revolution is over. In 2002, at the recommendation of his health and safety officer, he met with a member of Toxin Free Canada who gave him a list of the known toxic substances in his cleaning supplies. Stove then sat down with his health and safety committee, and the decision was unanimous: they would endeavor to remove all toxic substances across the board.

While the mechanics for Translink describe intimidation and struggle to change conditions for their employees, Stove says that he felt completely supported in his move to "green" the Burnaby school system.

The decision of the Burnaby School District to re-think clean affects 56 schools, and the lives of approximately 400,000 children, says Stove, not to mention the custodial staff, teachers, and the millions of living creatures who are poisoned by the toxic waste of cleaners and antibacterial agents as they are poured down the drain.

The greening of school systems reduces our toxic footprint and, according to a 2005 study funded by The American Federation of Teachers, American Lung Association and the U.S. Green Building Council (home of LEED certification), it is ultimately more cost-effective as well.

What is clean?

Talk to anyone in the cleaning business, and you will realize that the idea of a sparkling, bacteria-free environment is a fantasy of the marketing world. We are covered in bacteria, mold and mildew, and crawling with microscopic bugs inside and out.

"Going to war with microbes is a war you cannot win," says Michael Rochon, president of Cogent Environmental Solutions over the phone from his office in Mansfield, Ontario. "Microbes are the basis for all life on this planet; without microbes we would die."

When we talk of cleaning an environment, we are really talking of removing two things: soil (actual substances that we can see), and pathogens (microbes that can cause the growth of harmful bacteria or viruses), says Rochon.

He and Stove agree that there is only one way to clean: with some kind of cloth, mop or rag and water. Soap and modern detergents simply affect the water's ability to absorb, penetrate and pick up the bacteria so the water can remove it more effectively.

"If you are picking up toys in a room, that is cleaning," says Mike Sawchuck, vice president and general manager of Enviro-Solutions. "If you are picking up bacteria and soil with a rag and water, that is cleaning. If you are dumping bleach in a room, you are killing bacteria, not cleaning."

"Simple soap will kill 90 per cent of all germs," says Stove, who refers to a 2005 study done by the University of North Carolina, which found that soap and water were the most effective way to remove harmful bacteria from hands. So if soap and water are good enough for our hands, then why pour toxic cleaners like bleach and ammonia into our internal environments in offices and schools?

"Mostly I just think people don't know any better," says Stove. "They have been using products that are accepted by the government as safe. These products become like a favorite tool. They get used to relating the smell of that product to the idea that a room is now 'clean' or 'germ-free.'"

Although we can see if the soil has been removed from a surface, since bacteria are invisible to the naked eye, most people relate the "smell" of cleaners like bleach to the idea that a room is clean. What most of us don't realize is that these cleaners are some of the most toxic products made by man. When we smell toxic chlorine-based cleaners and detergents, they should register as warning signs, not as proof that a room is clean.

Taking out the big guns

Sometimes, however, it is important to take out the big guns, particularly in schools and hospitals. While Stove says he has tried to permanently remove products like bleach, during outbreaks of Norwalk or other viruses, toxic products that kill them completely (rather than simply removing them) are necessary.

The difference is they are used under controlled circumstances. Rather than using bleach or ammonia in every bucket, for every wall, window, and desk, Stove uses a hospital-grade peroxide (less toxic than bleach), shuts down the school, suits up, and sprays.

"We are using proper ventilation, and -- more importantly -- we are using chemicals that are toxic enough to kill the most hardcore bacteria, but that only last for about 30 seconds."

Why is this important? Anti-bacterial agents like triclosan, chlorhexidine and quaternary ammonium compounds are causing trouble precisely because they persist in the environment long enough to build up microbial immunity -- creating the super bug.

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble

So what should you be taking off the shelf? Contradictory information in the industry itself makes a simple answer next to impossible. When I first spoke to Stove a year ago, he was taking bleach off of his shelves. Then, he said, he had to put it back in because for some applications it was necessary. Now he is taking it out again, and so is the Vancouver Island Coastal Health Authority.

Then there is the surfactant issue. Detergents contain surfactants -- compounds added to the product that make water "more wet," thus allowing it to penetrate the soil or bacteria more easily. Surfactants also make the water heavier. This means that when they enter our lakes via the drains, they go straight down to where the fish populations live, and where they have been linked to damage in aquatic life.

Michael Rochon says that all surfactants are bad, and that we should be using what he defines as "soap," not "detergent." Mike Sawchuck says this is "just plain wrong." Some surfactants, he says -- the ones made out of vegetables instead of petroleum -- are not harmful.

Cleaning is the new rocket science

"There might be only one way to clean. It's the disinfecting that's complicated," says Sawchuck. He says that in public spaces, because you need to disinfect, that means you are also going to be dealing with chemicals that can kill. When asked if we can remove certain disinfectants across the board, he has no simple answer.

"People assume that because a disinfectant says 'hostile grade,' that means that it can kill any kind of bacteria. That is simply not true. If you are trying to kill HIV that is one thing; HEP C is another. You need to make sure that your disinfectant is going to kill what you need it to." These chemicals are so toxic and so specific that in exact ratios, and left for exact amounts of time, sometimes at specific temperatures, they can do anything from leaving our toilet bowls shiny and bug-free, to killing us.

Cleaning with chemicals is a process that requires intimate knowledge of chemistry. After a year of research, I still have no firm grasp on which chemicals, if mixed together in my sink, can cause a noxious gas that could kill me (although I have had more than one person tell me I can do this with two common household cleaners).

And yet, if you think about it, cleaning companies are often staffed by new immigrants, many of whom have a limited grasp of English, let alone any understanding of chemistry. When I make the analogy of children with guns, Sawchuck laughs ruefully: "You have hit the nail on the head. We need to change how we see cleaning, and realize that we need to be cleaning for health, not aesthetics."

Sawchuck believes that cleaners should be highly trained and looked at more like doctors than like janitors -- responsible for the environmental health of the people in their buildings.

Back to the list

Here is the problem. Even if you decide to tackle the chemistry and start going through your product lists using your MSDS sheets, a 2005-6 Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission found 2605 violations among the MSDS. The people who are doing the science, and writing the MSDS sheets are also -- by and large -- the manufacturers.

"There is no third party review board for the MSDS," says Sawchuck. "I am selling you the product, and giving you the MSDS."

Say a manufacturer wanted to develop a highly corrosive acid, but didn't want to trigger environmentalists, he could (in "theory") add amounts of acid that are below regulation for having to declare the contents, but add eight different kinds. The amount of carcinogenic or toxic ingredient might overall be above regulation, but because it is from a variety of sources, it wouldn't have to be declared under the law.

The solution? There are products you should be removing from your cleaning roster, but each company is going to have specific cleaning requirements and these lists should be made on a case-by-case basis.

The best way to start is by using second-party resources like Toxic Free Canada, who have compiled the information in a free, easy-to-read format. Or people can purchase the cancer smart consumer guide for $12.50.

Sawchuck and Toxic Free Canada also suggest narrowing down the list by only considering products that have third-party certification like Green Seal or Eco Logo. "Start with a product that has already gone through rigorous third party scrutiny," says Sawchuk. "Then look at it from there."

Green purchasing power

Scott Stove and the Burnaby School District 41 are a great example to follow; they are learning through trial and error, and forging a new direction in "clean." All the custodians and cleaning companies who spoke with The Tyee essentially say the same thing: green cleaning is not just about the list of chemicals, it is about an approach that holistically takes into consideration all the elements that affect the internal environment of a building.

What could following in School District 41 footsteps mean for the environment? Stove estimates he has a budget of $150,000 per year to spend on chemicals, mops, and cleaning machines. School District 41 is only one of seven school districts in the greater Vancouver area. Extrapolate those numbers across B.C. Now Canada. That's a lot of buying power that could be used to pressure one of the most toxic industries into providing a host of new environmentally friendly supplies, many of which (like Fantastic which Stove claims to be one of the most caustic available) cross over into consumer shelves as well.

For a list of Scott Stove's guidelines on how to clean safely, see the sidebar to this story.

On Wednesday, last in this series: What if your employer tells you a greener work environment is too expensive? Odds are that's wrong. People who've fought for healthier conditions say they've usually saved their firms money, too.  [Tyee]

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