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Improving a Building’s Health Using Green Cleaning to Fight Sick Building Syndrome

Written by  Hannah Genslinger

Headaches, fatigue, eye irritation—all of these conditions seem like natural symptoms of working in front of a computer screen for 40 hours a week. Even the occasional runny nose or sore throat shouldn’t come as a surprise to someone who interacts with numerous other people on a daily basis.

What seems strange, however, is that for some office workers, these problems vanish almost as soon as they exit their place of work, indicating that such health issues may arise from a source other than simply work-related stress or a seasonal cold. For these workers, Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) may be the culprit. SBS is a phenomenon where the air inside a building is polluted enough to adversely affect the health of its occupants, and the BSCs who clean these buildings are in a prime position to help prevent this affliction.

Declining Indoor Air Quality

The EPA has identified the main causes of SBS as inadequate ventilation, chemical contaminants from indoor and outdoor sources, and biological contaminants such as mold, bacteria, and pollen. Buildings constructed during and after the oil embargo of 1973 tend to be more airtight, with less outdoor air ventilation, which improves energy efficiency but negatively affects indoor air quality (IAQ). Indoor sources of contaminants include adhesives, carpeting, cleaning agents, and pesticides, which may emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like formaldehyde, as well as combustion products from stoves and unvented space heaters. Biological contaminants like mold accumulate in stagnant water found in humidifiers, ducts, and drain pans, along with areas where water has collected on ceiling tiles, carpets, and insulation. Even more, outdoor air pollutants like car exhaust can enter a building through poorly located air intake vents and windows.

Sick Building Syndrome causes acute discomfort, with symptoms ranging from dry skin to nausea, which can reduce worker productivity and increase absenteeism. As public awareness of the negative effects of poor IAQ has increased in the past 20 years, sufferers of SBS have brought numerous lawsuits against insurance companies, contractors, building owners, and even school districts. A worker afflicted with asthma or severe allergies, and thus more susceptible to the respiratory issues associated with SBS, may file a complaint against her employer under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition to the tens of billions of dollars estimated by the EPA to be lost every year due to reduced productivity resulting from SBS, these potential legal issues constitute a serious threat to the success of many businesses.

Maintaining Health with Green CleaningBuildingHealth

Fortunately, there are ways to combat SBS without razing every building built since 1973 to the ground—and BSCs are on the frontlines in this fight. The use of green cleaning techniques can offset some of the harmful effects of SBS.  IN fact, many traditional cleaning products can exacerbate the problem of poor IAQ by emitting high levels of VOCs into the air. The practice of green cleaning does not totally preclude the use of harsh disinfectants like ammonia where they are absolutely necessary, but cleaning services are encouraged to use these chemicals sparingly and in low-traffic, low-occupancy areas wherever possible. Harmful chemicals should be stored securely in a well-ventilated area.

Due to the popularity of the green movement skyrocketing in recent years, many reduced- and zero-VOC cleaning products are available on the market. In addition to reducing the use of VOCs, eliminating phosphates and aerosols also contributes to a safer environment, both for the building occupants and for the cleaning staff who handle these products. In order to determine if a product marketed as green is genuine, one should look for certification from one of the major third-party “ecolabels,” such as the EPA’s Design for the Environment, Green Seal, the Carpet and Rug Institute, and EcoLogo.

Aside from these ecolabels, other important features to look for in green products are:

•    non-toxic
•    biodegradable
•    phosphate-free
•    bleach-free
•    dye-free
•    petroleum-free
•    chlorine-free
•    made from renewable resources
•    scented with natural plant derivatives or essential oils

The care and maintenance of cleaning supplies like vacuums, brooms, and mops have a considerable impact on a building’s IAQ. Poorly-maintained or outdated vacuums can release just as much dust into the air as they take in. For best results, a green cleaning service should employ a vacuum with a multi-stage HEPA filtration system, proven by the EPA to remove 99 percent of air particulates. BSCs should also consider changing the cloths they use for dusting and sweeping. The replacement of traditional cotton cloths and mops with micro- or nano-fiber cloths, which are more durable and eco-friendly, removes up to 80 percent more dust and germs.

An important rule to remember for green cleaning is that damp-mopping is far preferable to sweeping, as a traditional broom fills the air with small particles of dust and dirt. In addition, simply making sure that doormats are placed at every entry can reduce the number of particulates that enter the building. It only takes a few minor changes in cleaning practices to make a noticeable difference in the quality of indoor air.


Multiple Benefits
Not only does green cleaning benefit, on a very personal level, the millions of people who work in offices five days a week, it also has the potential to increase the bottom lines of the businesses that will see a rise in productivity as a result of the improved health of their employees.

To this end, BSCs that employ these practices gain a competitive edge as well as the opportunity to ameliorate the health and happiness of their own workers. Far from being cost-prohibitive, green cleaning presents a distinct economic advantage. BSCs stand to save money through better, more efficient cleaning techniques and to find more business opportunities with the help of a solid reputation for environmental responsibility.


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