Facilities (Campus Spaces)

Green Cleaning Without VOCs



The report health and Environmental Benefits of Green Cleaning Products: Protecting Our Children, Teachers, School Workers, and the Environment, compiled by the Environmental Working Group and Regional Asthma Management and Prevention, is more than a decade old. Nevertheless, much of what it discusses as to the value of green cleaning solutions and, more specifically, their importance in reducing or eliminating volatile organic compounds (VOCs), is still believed and accepted today. The report says: “[Traditional] cleaning products contribute to asthma indirectly, by releasing a host of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that form ozone. Ozone is the primary component of smog that can trigger asthma.

“A six-month study in 12 Southern California [schools] documented an 83 percent increase in respiratory-related absences when daytime ozone levels increase by 20 parts per billion. In California, cleaning products release 32 tons of ozone-forming VOCs into the air each day. Certified green cleaning products must meet strict limits regarding the levels of volatile chemicals emitted, reducing their contribution to smog and asthma.”

It is for reasons such as this that all of the major green certification organizations — GreenSeal, Ecologo, GREENGUARD/UL Environment and others — now have strict guidelines regarding VOCs. They all require green alternatives of commonly used cleaning solutions to have limits on the number of VOCs their products release in order to be certified.

A VOC Refresher

While VOCs were a big topic when this report was issued and when green cleaning and the adoption of green cleaning strategies were first being considered and introduced into schools and universities, the subject no longer is headline news. So just as a reminder, let’s define what VOCs are. The U.S. Natural Library of Medicine defines VOCs this way: “Volatile organic compounds . . . are organic compounds that easily become vapors or gases [becoming airborne]. Along with carbon, they contain elements such as hydrogen, oxygen, fluorine, chlorine, bromine, sulfur or nitrogen.”

VOCs are found in all kinds of products, not just cleaning solutions, including paint, building materials, adhesives and glues, fabrics, carpet and a host of other products used or found in colleges every day. Along with frequently causing respiratory problems, VOCs have been connected with cognitive issues, liver and kidney problems, vision changes and more.

Aware of these issues, many manufacturers in a variety of industries have done their due diligence in finding ways to reduce the number of VOCs their products release into the air. Further, if they want the product to be green certified, this usually is a must.

Ozone-Depleting VOCs

It has been said that green cleaning is a journey, and we are learning more all the time. One of the things that has come to light is that claims that an environmentally preferable cleaning product has “no VOCs” or a reduced number of VOCs may not be accurate, at least as it relates to indoor air quality.

When products are marketed with this claim along with a green certification label, what it really means is that these products have no or few ozone-depleting VOCs. That is, these products help to protect the ozone layer, which protects human life on earth. However, they may not necessarily be protecting indoor air quality.

According to Scott Laughlin, an account executive with GREENGUARD/UL Environment, some green certification organizations use a “gram per meter” measuring method when it comes to VOCs. A certain number of VOC grams per meter can be acceptable and will allow the product to be green certified. However, VOCs are still present, can become airborne and can have a negative impact on human health.

“These reactions [to VOCs] are of particular concern for cleaning workers,” says Laughlin. “They are using these green products daily and throughout the day, believing they are safe when in reality [the products] may be harmful.”

Ensuring No VOCs Means No VOCs

There are ways college administrators can deal with this issue, especially when protecting indoor air quality is a key concern. It comes down to something more administrators are likely to see in coming years when selecting green cleaning solutions: dual certification. This means that the cleaning product has been certified by two certification organizations, not just one.

Why is this happening? The various certification organizations are becoming more specialized. For instance, Green Seal and ECOLOGO, which is also a part of UL Environment, tend to put more focus on the overall, cradle-to-grave sustainability of a product. By comparison, GREENGUARD puts more emphasis on what they refer to as “emissions,” such as VOCs, which can become airborne and impact indoor air quality.

As an example of how this might work, let’s say only greencertified cleaning products are allowed in the student center cafeteria. In such areas, selecting a product that has been certified by only one certification organization would likely suffice.

However, say the student center building also houses carpeted lounges, meeting rooms and study areas. When the carpet is cleaned, a green-certified product that has been dual certified would be recommended in order to protect indoor air quality. Harmful ingredients found in traditional cleaning products have been removed and we are now assured that “reduced VOCs” or “no VOCs” refers to the air we actually breathe.


When first hearing about this VOC issue, some college administrators may wonder if we are being misled about a product’s green attributes. As far as we know, this is not the case. As referenced earlier, green certification organizations, manufacturers and green advocates in many industries are simply learning more about green chemistry. As we learn more, the necessary corrections can be made to further protect human health; the ultimate goal of green cleaning.


It is not an accident that VOCs are found in so many different products. In general, they make products more effective. For instance, VOCs are found in solvents, which, when added to cleaning solutions, can help the product break down and loosen soils to perform more effectively. In paints, VOCs help the paint better adhere to walls, and manufacturers have been able to develop a wider variety of hues and colors with VOCs.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

Mike Sawchuk has a long history in the green cleaning movement and is now chief business development officer for Avmor, a leading manufacturer of green cleaning solutions. He can be reached at [email protected]