The Cleaning Component

To be safe and healthy, a school must be clean. Effective cleaning doesn’t happen without training and a thoughtful approach to implementing a program that’s right for the school and the people who use it. The products and tools that go into that program are a big part of what makes it work.

Every janitor or cleaning crew member needs to understand how to clean for safer and healthier environments and that they’re part of the larger effort — shared by the principal, teachers, nurse, building operations and other staff members — to maintain a healthy indoor environment.

Outlining What Custodians 
Need to Know

Cleaning for safer, healthier environments means that as much as possible, the cleaning crew works in a way that is safe and healthy for them and for everyone who enters the building. To do this, custodians need to be educated and trained. Here are some important points training must cover.

Germs and Biologicals
  • How bacteria or viruses are spread in a school via touchpoints that dictate cleaning priorities;
Methods and techniques of cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting, including following label directions and allowing germicidal agents enough dwell time (the time the surface is allowed to stay wet with the chemical) to be effective, but without wasting time. Also, teaching staff how to avoid cross-contamination of surfaces using cleaning tools such as cleaning buckets and cloths;
  • Why and where mold grows, how it can be unhealthy, how to prevent and remove it.
  • The role chemicals play in cleaning and pest prevention;
  • How chemicals can affect human health, especially for cleaning and maintenance workers exposed daily, plus children and chemically sensitive persons;
The importance of being careful around chemicals: How to safely store, mix, label and use them.
Accidents and Spills
  • How to deal with an accident or spill by the cleaning crew;
  • How to deal with any spill by students or staff;
How to clean up an overflowing toilet, or feces or urine;
  • How to handle events and materials involving blood.
Waste Disposal
  • How to dispose of trash from classrooms and offices, kitchen waste and chemical waste;
What to do with used cleaning cloths;
  • Where to locate waste storage bins and how to keep them hygienic and secure;
  • Safety and environmental regulation;
  • Which health, safety and environmental regulations are applicable;
  • How to read and interpret a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for a cleaning product.
  • How to fill a cleaning cart and sequence tasks to optimize productivity without sacrificing safety;
  • How to use equipment safely and ergonomically.
Record Keeping and Logs
  • Which records or logs need to be kept and why. For example, when a particular restroom was last cleaned, a particular carpet deep cleaned, a floor refinished or a filter changed;
  • Which logs to post and where;
  • Which events or observations to report and to whom.
Choose Low-toxicity 
Products That Clean Well
Check for third-party certification or recognition of greenness, safety, health and performance. Recognized green labels include Green Seal, EcoLogo, Design for the Environment (DfE), GREENGUARD and others. The Carpet and Rug Institute provides performance ratings of vacuums, carpet cleaning equipment, systems and chemicals through its Seal of Approval program. The International Executive Housekeepers Association (IEHA) offers a High Performance Cleaning Product (HPCP) Testing Program in conjunction with the University of Massachusetts Lowell that tests, verifies performance and helps promote hard-surface green cleaning products that clean effectively.

If these evaluations aren’t available for a specific product, check the specifications or list of ingredients and do your best to make a balanced judgment.

Read the label of cleaning products. Look for labels that list all ingredients so the total adds up to 100 percent. You can also check the Janitorial Products Pollution Prevention Project for advice on the health impact of individual chemicals commonly used in cleaning products, and you can look up other chemicals by using sources such as

Guidelines for Disinfectant Use

Of course, the MSDS and similar warnings are just part of the story because they mainly list ingredients that may pose acute dangers and may not address low-level or chronic chemical exposures that could cause problems over time.

Chemical disinfectants are among the most toxic cleaning products. Use them sparingly and carefully.

The following guidelines are important for using disinfectants.
  • Use only where and when they are needed.
Choose the product that is labeled as effective for the particular application.
Use strictly according to directions. Don’t use more than necessary.
Ventilate the area during use and shortly thereafter.
Don’t mix more than is needed.
Use a sanitizer instead of a disinfectant where appropriate. Sanitizers are generally not as strong, but still kill many germs.
Choosing Advanced Cleaning Technologies
Today, technologies have advanced enough so that schools can often clean a majority of their surfaces without the use of any chemicals at all. By taking a holistic approach that combines technologies like steam vapor, microfiber, ionized water and others, schools can truly be green and sustainable as never before.

Chemical-free Cleaning
Chemical-free cleaning may be the ultimate in green cleaning. Recent advances of using tap water as a cleaner have been at the forefront of emerging technologies in this area.
Ionized water system: Using a controlled electrical charge, this device creates positively charged and negatively charged nanosized bubbles in water that attach to dirt and enable it to be wiped away. The electrically charged water destroys or deactivates germs by creating holes in their cell walls through a scientific process called electroporation. Ionized water, therefore, is both a cleaner and a sanitizing agent.
Laboratory tests show this technology to be an effective general purpose cleaner and sanitizer for hard surfaces such as glass and stainless steel. Its reported performance combined with its lack of chemical content may make it particularly attractive for health-based cleaning. By eliminating the need to use, ship and store chemicals, it helps the environment.
  • Low-moisture vapor systems: In this technology, tap water is heated to a very high temperature producing steam vapor with low moisture content (six percent water). The vapor can penetrate into porous cavities and is effective in killing microbiological contaminants, including mold.
The heat and steam vapor have been shown in laboratory tests to clean and disinfect, and attachments provide versatility on a variety of surfaces. The system uses no chemicals and dries very quickly, which is particularly important for carpeting and hard flooring surfaces.
Efficient Vacuum Technology
Vacuum technology in upright, canister and backpack styles has improved significantly in the past decade. New equipment is more effective at removing dirt and offers high-efficiency filtration (such as HEPA) that prevents even very small particles from being released into the air. This improved filtration is a significant health benefit, especially for persons with allergies, and it saves labor by reducing the amount of dusting needed later.

Spray and Vac Systems

Workers traditionally use chemical cleaners with mops and wipes to clean restrooms. Spray and vac systems, however, combine an indoor pressure washer with a wet vacuum to clean, sanitize and/or disinfect — without ever touching restroom surfaces, cleaning cloths or mops. Also called no touch cleaning, this system reduces custodial costs because it’s often significantly faster, more ergonomic and better at soil removal.

These systems can be 60 times more effective in reducing bacterial contamination on tile and grout surfaces than mops, offer less chance for improper or excessive use of chemicals, and less evaporation of unwanted moisture or chemical residues because the cleaning solution is vacuumed away.

Microfiber cloths are composed of microscopic synthetic fibers whose shape, size and combinations are selected for specific characteristics such as softness, durability, absorption, wicking abilities, water repellency and filtering.

Microfiber cloths can have significant advantages over traditional cotton fabric because they can absorb more water, hold their shape better and leave almost no residue. They’re superior in absorbing oils, fat and grease, and their electrostatic properties give them significant power to attract and retain dust.

Furthermore, because the fibers are very fine or even microscopic, they can remove and capture germs and may be effective in sanitizing some surfaces without the use of chemical cleaning agents. Microfiber cloths should be cleaned with regular detergent without fabric softeners.

All these technologies increasingly reflect the greater role cleaning is having for the health of occupants and for the productivity and safety of workers.

— This article is adapted by permission from the mini-book, Clean and Healthy Schools for Dummies, by Dr. David Mudarri. Free copies of the book are available from IEHA at

Dr. David Mudarri is devoted to advancing public health through indoor air quality education and the development and promulgation of state-of-the-art process and tools. He is recognized as a national indoor air quality expert and has authored numerous articles and presentations on various indoor air quality subjects throughout his career. He was a senior advisor within EPA on both technical and policy matters related to indoor air quality.