Green Cleaning: Tools to Fight H1N1

Selecting green disinfectants for this flu season.

Because of concerns about the H1N1 virus, this year's flu season is likely to affect schools and universities significantly. It is important to be familiar with state and local health recommendations, as well as information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC's recommendations include frequent hand washing with soap and water; establishing regular schedules for frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces; providing disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces can be wiped down before each use; and encouraging students to clean their living quarters frequently. However, the CDC does not call for any additional disinfection beyond the recommended routine cleaning.

But how does a school or university select and use a disinfectant as part of a green-cleaning program?

Selecting green disinfectants poses a challenge because disinfectants are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which prohibits manufacturers from making green or health claims and forbids the use of third-party certifications. Keep in mind that disinfectants are chemical compounds specifically formulated to kill living organisms. These products can pose risks to users and the environment during use and after disposal.

Nonetheless, this does not mean that a disinfectant cannot be part of a comprehensive green-cleaning program. As a matter of fact, a disinfectant can help create a healthful, high-performing indoor environment.

Presidential Executive Order 13423 defines green (or “environmentally preferable”) products as those that “reduce the health and environmental impacts compared (with) similar products and services used for the same purpose.”

Apply the definition of green from Executive Order 13423 when comparing products. For example, it is preferable to select a disinfectant that has a neutral pH (closer to 7) instead of a product with a pH at the extreme ends of the scale (0 or 14). It also is preferable to use a more concentrated product compared with a ready-to-use or less-concentrated alternative. This reduces environmental impacts from packaging and transportation.

Cleaning staffs trying to meet the requirements of green-cleaning programs found in the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED rating system or the Healthy Schools Campaign's Quick & Easy Guide to Green Cleaning in Schools should make sure the product manufacturer can document that the disinfectant meets or exceeds the requirements from the state of California for volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Another way to “green” a program is to use disinfectants only where and when needed.

In all cases it is important to make sure the disinfectant is appropriate for the organisms being targeted. Don't forget the importance of training on proper procedures, application, dwell times and other techniques.

Stephen Ashkin is executive director of the Green Cleaning Network, a 501(c)3 not-for-profit educational organization. He can be reached at [email protected].

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