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The Exclusive Magazine for the Building Service Contracting Industry Since 1981

Protecting the Indoor Environment

Written by  Roger McFadden

Heightened awareness, consumer demand and changing regulations are motivating product manufacturers, suppliers, brands, retailers, building owners, and facility managers to eliminate hazardous chemicals and other products that pollute the environment from their buildings and supply chains. Additionally, businesses are establishing chemical management policies, requiring suppliers to disclose chemicals used in products to increase safety. This is paving the way for more transparency to encourage businesses to use products and processes that increase safety in the built indoor environments.

Safe and sustainable materials are important to maintain a healthy indoor environment. While transparency is a key element to understanding the impact of the materials BSCs use in their buildings, it’s often challenging to understand and determine the right path to achieve it. Until recently, a facility’s processes were not questioned if things were running smoothly. However, that’s now changed with new standards, such as LEED v.4 that offers two credits: one for optimizing products by screening out hazardous chemicals and another for disclosing ingredients. This signifies a trend toward radical transparency to increase safety and protect human health and wellness.

Impact of chemicals on health

You may not be able to see or smell indoor air pollutants, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. Levels of indoor air pollutants may be two to five times—and occasionally more than 100 times—higher than outdoor levels, according the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Considering people spend up to 90 percent of their lives in indoor environments, it is vital to reduce chemical hazards indoors.

Use of chemicals in cleaning products and processes in an indoor environment can cause serious health hazards that many people aren’t aware of. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), American workers use tens of thousands of chemicals every day. While many of these chemicals—due to their inherent chemical and physical properties—exhibit a higher propensity to cause harm, only a small number are publicly regulated. As a result, workers suffer illnesses and even deaths related to chemical exposures.

Though selecting the right cleaning products and processes can be daunting, BSCs can take comfort in knowing that there are easy, immediate, and sustainable steps they can take to reduce and eliminate hazardous substances in a building. Understanding the role of chemicals and their impact on human health and environmental factors can drive change and improve transparency from manufacturers. Not only that, this also helps facility managers and consumers to make informed decisions about the cleaning products they purchase and use.

Transitioning to a safer indoor environment

As more facilities consider the switch to safer, more sustainable cleaning products and equipment, there are more product options available at reasonable price points than ever before. Companies and distributors who offer training on sustainable products can help you select the right products to simplify the transition to sustainable cleaning in facilities.

Additionally, facility managers can implement the following tips to transition to safer and more sustainable products and processes, both in new construction and existing buildings:

Take a closer look at your cleaning products: Cleaning products may be releasing unwanted vapors and contaminants into the air, which can degrade indoor air quality and negatively impact health, so it’s important to choose sustainable and safer solutions. Learn how to recognize products that generate low emissions and odor. Facility managers should be primarily concerned about chemicals that are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBTs). The following chemicals have been listed as a concern by facility managers: Benzene, Toluene, Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), perfluorinated compounds, Nonyl phenol ethoxylates, lead, mercury, hexavalent chromium, formaldehyde, phthalates, trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene, and acetone. Additionally, ask suppliers to provide independent, third-party certification to verify that their products meet their specifications.

• Evaluate your cleaning processes: It’s important to evaluate current processes and learn how to modify them to eliminate hazards. Many techniques allow for reduced chemical exposure, and effective processes help improve indoor air quality and protect human health while placing high priority on performance and cost of ownership. Concentrated cleaning solutions are great to implement into your cleaning process—they introduce lower levels of chemicals into the building, and minimize unwanted and unpleasant chemical odors and vapors in the air. Other considerations include properly ventilating during cleaning, as well as ensuring your staff is cleaning HVAC vents to prevent mold spores from entering air circulation.

• Chemical screening and resources: Learn about chemical screening tools, such as the U.S. Department of Labor OSHA Safer Chemicals Toolkit, that can help you make informed and healthy decisions for your buildings. Properly using these tools and products will help meet the increasing demands of the industry, while reducing risks and keeping building occupants safer. There is also a growing interest and demand for ingredient disclosure from the facility manager, so don’t be afraid to be a part of that movement. Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) are being used to communicate the environmental impact to the decision makers in facilities. Additionally, Health Product Declarations (HPD) are being used to communicate the human health impacts of chemicals in products to facilities managers.

Do good, feel good

You can implement healthier cleaning that doesn’t add costs or complexity to your current program if you prepare, coordinate with your staff, and properly communicate. BSCs can feel good knowing they are doing something productive for the environment, while demonstrating their commitment to employee well-being—all while decreasing absenteeism, increasing productivity, inspiring healthy living, and defraying cost.

Roger McFadden, vice president and senior scientist for Staples, Inc., is a nationally recognized leader in the fields of green cleaning products and ecological sustainability and created Staples line of Sustainable Earth cleaning products.

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