Choosing “Healthy” Alternatives for Cleaning and Maintenance

Choosing cleaning and maintenance materials is not the same as it once was. Cost effectiveness, availability, WHMIS control, and performance are no longer the only important factors. Research on health impacts from cleaning materials tells us to include new health and environment factors. The good news is, industry is responding with healthier alternatives.

Cleaning and maintenance products for schools:

  • When choosing products for school use, be sure to consult those with environmental sensitivities. Sensitivities vary. One individual may do well with vinegar and water glass cleaner but another may be sensitive to vinegar. There are alternatives available for most everything.
  • Avoid preservatives, dyes, phosphates, perfumes, caustics, chlorines, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, mutagens, teratogens, solvents…
  • Fallacy: “If it were harmful the government wouldn’t let be on the market.” The chemical industry is the least regulated. Little or no testing for potential harm is done. Long term tests take time and money. Government is only beginning to consider better product labeling of ingredients.
  • Read Material Safety Data Sheets for harmful ingredients. Caution: Some loopholes allow ingredients to be unlisted. See CASLE’s website below for WHMIS information flaws.
  • Choose fragrance-free products. Most fragrances are man-made petrochemical-based products designed to imitate the smell of desirable things such as strawberries, flowers, etc. They include toxic chemicals including toluene, phenols and more. “Scent-free” products can contain a small percentage of fragrance as a masking agent and still label it “scent-free”! “Fragrance Free” is usually a more reliable claim, but not always.
  • Use the least-toxic possible for the task, and in the proper dilution.
  • Use isolation or timing to further protect students and sensitive people.
  • Beware “greenwashing”: Companies striving to look “green” make claims of “natural”, nontoxic, scent free, earth friendly, etc. It takes knowledge of ingredients to choose the best.
  • Natural is not always best: citrus, eucalyptus, cedar, and other strong natural VOCs can be as problematic as many man-made products. Cedar, hemlock, and many other natural products have toxic properties. Citrus cleaners work well, but citrus is one of the most common allergens, and the limonene in citrus combines with natural occurring ozone to produce fine particles and formaldehyde, a carcinogen.
  • Tea tree oil is a sensitizer. (Can cause sensitivities) Use with care as an antifungal.

Some options:

Hospitals and schools in Nova Scotia are working to use less-toxic and least-toxic products. There are many more products now available, but buyer beware! Also, fragrance, dyes and other ingredients are sometimes added to otherwise good products.

Some of the least toxic lines that we have found and that are commercially available (and being used in some schools and hospitals) are:

  • Bebbington Industries products: Down East, Allerjan and Green Knight. Custodians who use them in schools say they work well.
  • Hydrogen Peroxide based cleaners such as EcoGent, Envirodesic tend to be well tolerated by those with sensitivities.
  • Nature Clean products.
  • Shaklee products, used by Woods Hole Research, on Jacques Cousteau’s boats, and in the Biosphere Research Centre in Arizona, are also being used in schools scattered across North America (and in some classrooms in Halifax.)
  • L.O.C all purpose cleaner from Amway is often tolerated well by people with environmental sensitivities.
  • The new Microfibre cloths combined with a least toxic cleaner can handle even tough jobs. They work amazingly well, even with just water!

When cleaning:

  • Spritz directly into the cleaning cloth. Don’t spray. (Larger droplets are less likely to be inhaled.)
  • Mop oil has a strong petrochemical odour, and
  • sweeping with brooms stirs up dust, so use self-attractant mop heads, a HEPA vacuum, or wet-mop.
  • Use no chemical deodorizers.
  • Choose washroom hand soap carefully. Ingredients can be absorbed through the skin, especially with warm water.

“Home-made” Cleansers

Least toxic non-commercial alternatives are various combinations of baking soda, Borax (Do not inhale the dust) and vinegar. A 3% solution of Hydrogen Peroxide, or a product line similar to EcoGent, Envirodesic can be used as disinfectant. CP Hotels and Resorts uses some of these in their Green Program, which saved them $250,000.00 in their first year alone.

Details are available from the coordinator of the national program. Some of the CP Hotels less toxic procedures products are better for Mother Earth than for Environmental Health, but we can still learn a great deal from what they are doing.

Maintenance Products and Practices

Floor waxes that create powder when buffed may trigger asthma and aggravate other respiratory ailments, and the waxy dust can collect in the lungs.

Even the less-toxic paints and floor finishes contain some hazardous materials that should not be breathed in. We suggest using well formulated water-based products which have a faster curing time. Combine these with isolation techniques or timing of such work for early in long school holidays. Include a curing or flush-out period before the room is put back into use.

Visit for valuable information on ingredients and alternatives.