Harvard University office for Sustainability

green cleaning science

Green Cleaning Program

This information is brought to you by the Harward University Office for Sustainability

What is Green Cleaning?

Green cleaning is defined as cleaning to protect health without harming the environment. Green cleaning is a widely accepted movement that uses procedures and products to make cleaning for the health of building occupants, janitors, and the environment a primary concern.

Cleaning Chemicals and Health Problems

It has been found that some widely used cleaning products have serious adverse effects on the health of building occupants and janitors. The average person spends about 90% of their day indoors, where air pollution from diverse sources such as cleaners, upholstery, and carpeting can be up to 100 times greater than outdoor air. Short-term health problems caused by exposure to hazardous cleaning products range from eye irritation and coughing to chest pain, vomiting, cramps, and diarrhea. Long-term effects may include liver and kidney failure, birth defects, emphysema, brain damage, and even cancer. 11.6% of work-related asthma comes from cleaning products. In addition, people who suffer from multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome, a disease that is not fully understood or recognized by the medical community, feel that low-level exposure to chemicals, such as cleaning products, causes them to feel sick.

Cleaning Chemicals and the Environment

Cleaning products can also harm the natural environment. There are over 70,000 chemicals being used today, and fewer than 2% have been thoroughly tested for their effects on human and aquatic life. Cleaning products are responsible for approximately 8% of non-vehicular emissions of Volatile Organic Compounds, which can trigger respiratory problems such as asthma, contribute to smog formation, and inhibit plant growth. Chemicals in cleaning products contribute to the toxic waste stream when they are disposed of. Chemicals such as alkylphenol ethoxylates are endocrine disruptors that are slow to biodegrade and have shown up in the endocrine systems of fish, birds, and mammals. Other chemicals cause algal blooms in water bodies, which in turn kill aquatic life.

Paper Products

Green cleaning is not just about chemical substitution, paper products also play an important role because their production process can harm the environment and human health. Paper products supplied by cleaning companies have negative impacts on the environment and human health. Paper products that are bleached in the traditional method with chlorine create dioxin, a toxic chemical that does not break down and accumulates in the environment, harming both humans and wildlife. Chlorine bleaching also uses large amounts of water that then becomes polluted wastewater, further burdening the environment. Paper products further burden the environment through their use of virgin trees that are then used one time and disposed of. By switching to unbleached or non-chlorine bleached, recycled content products that have minimal packaging or using energy-efficient hand dryers, the effects on the environment can be minimized.

Green cleaning aims to eliminate or reduce these potentially harmful toxins and carcinogens and aims to minimize resource consumption through product substitutions and procedural changes. Green cleaning emphasizes the environmental sustainability of cleaning operations and overall building health and does not solely evaluate building cleanliness based on appearance.

Sources: Green Seal, Center for a New American Dream, WWF Canada, Seventh Generation, E-Magazine

Harvard University Office for Sustainability December 2008