Getting the "Green" Light With Protective Coatings

March 10, 2008
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Another job well done! You’ve saved a building from a disastrous situation; the water damage has been resolved, the mold is gone, and you’ve passed your indoor air quality tests with flying colors. You really stepped up to the plate this time, and there’s not a trace of mold to be found.

With a look of satisfaction on your professional mug, you hand the invoice over to your client, who asks, “So this mold’s not coming back right? I mean, this is a school, and we can’t have students breathing in mold spores and parents hollering at PTA meetings.”

Of course, as a professional cleaner, you know that water and humidity prevention is the key to controlling mold growth. You are also aware of protective antimicrobial coatings, which can help in the fight against mold. Often used by builders on new construction projects, these coatings are increasingly incorporated into the arsenals of remediators and cleaning professionals.

There are several products on the market today, all of which “protect” a surface in different ways. Some are professional-grade chemical compounds that are either brushed or sprayed onto a surface, post-mold remediation, to block any further mold growth. Others can be baked into construction materials to add protection to a building project from the outset. They employ different technologies to protect a surface against microbial attachment and growth; heavy metals, ammonias, salts or other chemical compounds are often key ingredients in these protective concoctions.

But while most of these products claim high levels of efficacy and low levels of toxicity, you – or your customer – might wonder, “Is this product eco-friendly?” or “Will this product harm the kids/pets/ficus?”

Don’t Get Green-Washed
In today’s “Al Gore Environment” it’s not enough to simply say you’re eco-friendly or safe. Consumers are smarter. They’re reading the labels and the fine print, and they’re doing their research; hence the growing awareness of “green washing,” a term coined by consumer and corporate watchdog groups.

According to one such organization, “consumers are inundated with products that make green claims. Some are accurate, certified and verifiable, while others are just plain fibbing to sell products.” So while a product’s label or its Material Safety Data Sheet may say it’s green or safe, there could be hidden truths there; the product might not be as “green” or as “safe” as you’re being led to believe.

For the sake of clarification, just because a product is registered with the EPA doesn’t mean that it’s safe or eco-friendly. The EPA only registers a product and its claims; it neither approves nor endorses any product. Moreover, the MSDS isn’t required to list all ingredients, so presenting it to a customer as evidence won’t do the trick. Showing them a type of certification or approval from any number of reputable environmental organizations might get their attention. But you may still find yourself in the position of having to defend the eco- and human-friendliness of the antimicrobial product you’re proposing.

Different Shades of Green
“Green” has become big business, and it comes with its own lexicon. Product labels, Web sites and sales sheets all scream “green” in different ways with different terms. Healthy skepticism is required as you sift through these claims. As a start, the following are some of the consumer product labeling terms that have been yanked from under the green blanket:

Green. This term has taken on a whole new life in this environmentally conscious era. But there are no defined benchmarks for what constitutes a “green” product – it’s an entirely open playing field. Question any vague “green” claim. Where do you draw the line in determining if a product like an anti-microbial is truly green? Does it define its components? What about the packaging? Does “green” mean it’s safe for the environment? Or humans? Or neither?

All-natural. Sure, that product may contain ingredients that are naturally occurring – but does that mean it’s safe for handling and application (and accidental ingestion!)? Arsenic and formaldehyde, for example, are “all-natural,” as are scores of other chemicals.

Biodegradable. Given enough time, everything is biodegradable! According to one source, it takes leather shoes 25 to 40 years to biodegrade, but a glass bottle won’t break down for a million years. Can a product really claim biodegradability? Under what time frames, and with what environmental impact?

Safe. For whom? For what? Some products might claim they’re safe on one side of the packaging but contain words like “corrosive” or sport a “toxic” symbol on the other side. Here’s a litmus test: if the product is so safe, would you drink it?

While we highly advise against taste-testing the mold remediation products on the shelf, carefully consider the green claims before deciding which one to use on your customer’s walls and floors. It can’t be emphasized enough how important education is – especially in this age of access to information. Use all your resources, including Internet search engines and company websites. Talk to colleagues, read the marketing materials with an open and questioning mind, and attend the industry tradeshows. Most importantly, stay current.

Before coating your clients’ walls with an antimicrobial cocktail, educate yourself on what you are about to apply. Look up the ingredients online, or call the manufacturer and get them to answer to their own claims. That’s the only way to assure yourself – and your customer – that your antimicrobial product choice is safe for you during application, safe for them once the job is done, and safe for the environment.

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