Green Doesn't Always Mean Non-Toxic

Increasingly, K-12 schools and school districts across the nation are adopting “green cleaning” processes and procedures. This is due largely to the growing popularity of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certification and other sustainable building and maintenance programs, as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) IAQ Tools for Schools program, which strives to improve indoor air quality.

Unfortunately, what constitutes “green cleaning” isn’t necessarily what constitutes “healthier cleaning” — despite the implication that the terms are interchangeable. In fact, some of the green cleaning products we assume are healthy may have an adverse effect on a school’s indoor air quality and, subsequently, put the health of students and teachers at risk through inhalation exposure.

Content Vs. Emissions
At the heart of this discrepancy is confusion over the ways volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — the chemicals that are released into the air from products, including industrial cleaners and solvents — are measured and assessed for their health impacts. Many products labeled “low VOC” or “no VOC” have earned that distinction based solely on their VOC weight or content — not their VOC emissions. In fact, federal and state regulations of certain VOCs are based not on a product’s impact on indoor air quality and health, but on its emissions of VOCs that lead to the formation of outdoor smog. Since not all VOCs contribute to smog formation, products like “low VOC” or “no VOC” cleaners and solvents can still off-gas potentially toxic chemicals.

In fact, a 2009 study conducted on behalf of the Environmental Working Group evaluated the chemical emissions of 21 representative cleaning products used in California schools — including so-called “green” cleaners. The results showed that while conventional cleaners emitted 457 air contaminants (two dozen of which are linked to asthma, cancer, birth defects and reproductive disorders), the certified “green” cleaners also emitted a significant number of VOCs — roughly half that of the conventional products. One of the worst offenders was a widely known “non-toxic” cleaner, which released 93 contaminants into the air.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the potential for chemical exposure can actually increase when a cleaning product is being used. Products can chemically react with compounds already in the air to form additional VOCs that cannot be measured through content analysis. And aerosol sprays release atomized particles that can penetrate more deeply into the lungs of children, raising their risk of developing respiratory and cardiopulmonary disease.

Health Impacts
Acute health problems associated with chemical inhalation exposure include headaches, nosebleeds, upper respiratory complications, nausea and allergic reactions.

Repeated chemical exposure can lead to more severe health problems, including memory impairment, delayed cognition and asthma — one of the leading causes of school absenteeism in the U.S. In fact, the EPA estimates that asthma accounts for 14.5 million missed school days each year.

Prolonged exposure to VOCs can have debilitating health consequences, including liver, kidney and central nervous system damage, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). This is particularly concerning, given that an estimated 74 million children and 3.5 million teachers spend their days in schools for nearly 10 months each year. To complicate matters, children are particularly susceptible to developing chemical-induced health problems because their bodies are still growing; their respiratory, neurological, cardiovascular and immune systems are still developing; and their heart rate is higher, which speeds up the rate at which chemicals enter their bloodstream.

Perpetuating the Confusion
Unfortunately, the confusion over VOC content versus VOC emissions is so widespread that even some of the most prominent green building programs and indoor air quality guidelines fail to distinguish between the two terms. In fact, out of a total of 15 green cleaning standards that qualify for a point under the LEED Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance Rating System, only one calls for the optional use of a product that has been certified for low VOC emissions; the rest require the use of products with low VOC content.

Similarly, movements aimed at prioritizing student health, like the Healthy Schools Campaign and the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, encourage schools to choose cleaning products that have low VOC content. Even the EPA’s IAQ Tools for Schools program recommends that schools “select products with…low VOC content…to reduce harmful impacts to building occupants (and) improve IAQ….” The problem, again, is that a product’s VOC content is not a reliable indicator of a product’s VOC emissions because the measurement methodologies for determining VOC content do not detect low-level VOCs with known health hazards.

The trouble intensifies when using cleaning products in energy-efficient schools. “High performance” schools are, by design, tightly insulated, which all but prevents outdoor air exchange. This lack of ventilation prevents VOCs from being flushed out; consequently, they amass in the air that students and teachers breathe. HVAC systems that simply recycle indoor air without ventilating with fresh outdoor air only intensify the problem.

Making Educated Decisions
When deciding to “go green,” a school must evaluate its “green” priorities. Is a product’s recycled packaging and biodegradability more important than its impact on indoor air quality and human health? Is earning points toward sustainable building credits more important that protecting the health of students and teachers?
Remember, going “green” is not just about protecting the planet; it’s about protecting the people who live, work, learn and play on the planet. It’s about protecting children. But until the distinction between VOC content and VOC emissions is broadly recognized, and until green building rating systems and similar programs start emphasizing the protection of human health, it’s up to the individual schools to make the right choices.

To find independently certified low-emitting cleaners (as opposed to low-VOC content cleaners), visit and click on “Find Products.”

Rachel Belew is the Public Relations and Communications manager at the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute, a third-party organization that certifies products for low chemical emissions in an effort to improve indoor air quality. She can be reached at