Cleaning & Restoration Association News

"Green" Carpet-Cleaning Products

A healthy 42-year-old woman living in New Jersey had her carpets extracted by a reputable professional carpet-cleaning company. Within hours of the carpet cleaning and deodorizing, the woman experienced an acute asthma attack, seizures, and unconsciousness. She survived, but said she had never had an asthma attack or seizure before, even after past carpet cleanings.

Richard Lynch of Rutgers University's Department of Urban Studies and Community Health in New Brunswick, N.J., investigated the incident. He found that the woman had been exposed to as much as 17 mg/m3 of sodium tripolyphosphate (a powerful detergent) and more than 14 mg/m3 of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The two together, along with the possibility of inadequate ventilation in her home, were deemed the cause of the woman's physical reactions.

Each day in the United States, hundreds if not thousands of carpets are being cleaned in homes, offices, medical facilities, and schools. For the most part, traditional carpet-cleaning chemicals are safe if used by trained carpet-cleaning professionals in accordance with the manufacturers' recommendations. Most will have an impact on the environment but, again, if they are used properly, this is minimal.

Incidents such as the one described here are extremely rare; however, they do occur. Because of this-and because of the increased interest and demand for "green" or environmentally preferable cleaning products in all facets of the cleaning industry-carpet-cleaning contractors should be aware of the safety issues regarding the chemicals, products and machines they use to clean carpets. This way, they can help make carpet cleaning healthier for both the customer and the cleaning professional.

Greener Carpet Cleaning
Stephen Ashkin of the Ashkin Group in Bloomington, Ind., has been the cleaning industry's most vocal proponent for the use of environmentally preferable cleaning products. He sees the greening of the carpet-cleaning industry in its infancy, but also sees an opportunity for carpet cleaners to limit their own exposure to potentially harmful toxins and to market their services as environmentally responsible-a call being heard from more and more customers.

Ashkin says that environmentally preferable carpet-cleaning chemicals are now available, and that carpet-cleaning professionals can better evaluate these products, as a result of the Green Seal GS-37 Standards. These standards, developed by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), assess cleaning products as to their safety, effects on health and the environment, and performance.

"People in our industry did not really know until just recently what defined a green cleaning product, whether it was safe, or whether it was cost- and performance-effective," says Ashkin. "Now they have guidelines from an independent organization that answer these and other questions."

The machines used to clean carpets can have an effect on health as well. Stephen Hanig, vice president of sales for U.S. Products, an Idaho-based manufacturer of professional carpet cleaning, floor and restoration products, says that to improve drying time, carpets should be cleaned in well-ventilated areas using machines that heat the solution consistently above 200-degrees Fahrenheit at the wand tip.

"Heat not only reduces drying times but makes most cleaning chemicals-traditional or green-work more effectively," Hanig said. "Some studies even indicate that cleaning effectiveness can actually double every 18 degrees over 118 degrees."

Hanig suggests that carpet-cleaning professionals should encourage their clients to set up regular carpet maintenance programs so that carpets can be cleaned or extracted less often, reducing the need to use potentially toxic cleaning chemicals and decreasing concerns about drying times.

"A successful maintenance program includes routine vacuuming, using mild or green products for spot cleaning, and avoiding products that are potentially harmful to the environment," Hanig said.

The Greening of UNICCO
One major janitorial and carpet cleaning contractor that has transitioned from traditional to green cleaning products in almost all its cleaning and maintenance operations, including carpet cleaning, is the $650 million facilities outsourcing company UNICCO Services in Newton, Mass.

"In the past, many green products did not work as promised, which led to a reluctance to implement green procedures," Charles Restivo, director of operations at UNICCO, said. "Today's environmentally preferable products work as well as traditional chemicals, and we are in a more enlightened era that understands not only these environmental benefits but also the real business benefits."

Among the benefits Restivo says his company has found using green cleaning products are:

  • Safer working conditions for workers.
  • Lower worker insurance costs and claims.
  • Reduced cleaning costs.
  • The ability to bid on federal, state, and local contracts that specify the use of green cleaning products for custodial and carpet cleaning maintenance.

    In the past 20 years there have been a number of changes in the carpet-cleaning industry. Portable and truck-mount machines are much more powerful and effective; many more educational, training, and certification programs are available; and cleaning chemicals are safer with improved efficacy.

    One of the biggest changes now being seen by cleaning industry is the emergence of green cleaning systems. Federal directives are now requiring all federal buildings to use green cleaning products by 2005. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is working with building owners and managers to help convert them to green and sustainable practices. And the general public is demanding the use of healthier and safer cleaning products. Because of this, we can expect the use of more environmentally preferable carpet cleaning products to become increasingly common, if not the standard, in the near future.

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