What Does "Cleaning Green" Mean?

October 7, 2005
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"Green" seems to be the cleaning industry's latest marketing buzzword. I hear it attached to chemicals, equipment, processes, procedures - but what does the term really mean?

I suppose that it's supposed to give me a warm, fuzzy feeling of confidence that the product or process of "environmentally friendly," that it creates no adverse impact on the environment in which we live and work.

Hey, I'm for that . . . but who decides what cleaning green is? How is green cleaning measured? Well, the answer is two-part: it is measured and it isn't.

First, the Bad News
It isn't measured by a lot of product manufacturers who plant the term "green" on a lot of labels simply as a marketing ploy. They know that you and I are concerned about the greenhouse effect, global warming, ozone depletion and all the environmental issues surrounding chemicals and processes that impact our small planet that's getting smaller every day. Indeed, "green" issues of all sorts are used as a political football - some real, some imagined.

But the point is that most of us can't look at a chemical product label and decipher the chemical terms found there - if found at all. We all should challenge manufacturers of such products, equipment or processes by asking them, "What exactly does your ‘green' label or designation mean, and who determined that?" Then, use a little common sense.

Now for the Good News
The good news is that there are some organizations that are measuring and providing certification or quality assurance labels on products, processes - even buildings - that meet published criteria for the label "green." These organizations include the Carpet and Rug Institute and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification program.

What Causes a Building's IEQ to Become a Concern?
If a building services contractor purchases a chemical with lower VOCs, will that solve indoor environmental quality (IEQ) problems? Will using vacuum cleaners with better filtration solve the problem? How about identifying and eliminating water leaks, will that do it?

Actually, there are three categories of culprits that lead to poor IEQ: particles, VOCs and biologicals. Particles typically are tracked in or generated inside the building by occupant or production activities. VOCs (gases) generally are measured on MSDSs as Threshold Limit Values or TLVs in parts per million (ppm) or parts per billion (ppb). Biologicals include dust mites, pets, infiltrated pollen, fungi and more.

Carpet and Rug Institute
Carpet is the primary focus of the CRI, and an enormous amount of time and money has been expended in ensuring that carpet and carpet-related products meet the grade. The CRI has launched Green Label programs for carpet, carpet cushion (pad) and for adhesives. Specialists have analyzed and measured chemical components and VOCs. In fact, the carpet industry as a whole has meet standards that put them in compliance with the Kyoto protocols for emissions.

As part of a new CRI Seal of Approval initiative, vacuum cleaners have been tested in closed chambers with measured amounts of soil on carpet. In the past, many residential and commercial vacuum cleaners have been removing soil from carpet and other surfaces, where essentially is it doing no harm, and flinging these soils into the air where they become part of the airborne contaminant load. As a result of CRI testing programs, vacuum unit leaks have been stopped and better filtration has been achieved.

Bottom line, today all consumers breathe easier and the air and surfaces in buildings stay cleaner because of CRI SOA vacuum testing. A list of vacuum cleaners that bear the SOA label can be found at www.carpet-rug.com.

The CRI's second initiative has been in testing carpet cleaning and spotting chemicals. The test criteria include cleaning efficacy; resoiling potential; pH; presence of optical brighteners; effect on colorfastness; and VOC content.

Obviously, this is a step in the right direction and a list of CRI SOA cleaning/spotting chemicals can be found on CRI website as well. And this doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of CRI recycling efforts with their Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) headed by Dr. Bob Peoples. But that's another subject.

The LEED Green Building Program
According to their Web site, the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System is a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings. Members of the U.S. Green Building Council representing all segments of the building industry developed LEED and continue to contribute to its evolution. LEED was created to define "green building" by establishing a common standard of measurement; to promote integrated, whole-building design practices; to recognize environmental leadership in the building industry; to stimulate green competition; to raise consumer awareness of green building benefits; and to transform the building market.

LEED provides a complete framework for assessing building performance and meeting sustainability goals. Based on well-founded scientific standards, LEED emphasizes state-of-the-art strategies for sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality. LEED recognizes achievements and promotes expertise in green building through a comprehensive system offering project certification, professional accreditation, training and practical resources.

While attaining the goals of LEED may be beyond the control of the typical building services contractor, particularly those involved in specialized flooring maintenance and cleaning, still the LEED program presents challenges to which building management can aspire. The LEED Green Building Rating System certainly is worth mentioning to building managers who are serious about a holistic approach to "cleaning green."

Total Building Cleaning Effectiveness Study: Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center
Efforts at cleaning green didn't begin recently. As early as 1992, an EPA-funded study led by Dr. Michael Berry began research to quantify the impact of "green cleaning." The purpose of this world-class study was to characterize the indoor environment of a 20-year-old, 40,000-square-foot, multi-floor (two daycare, one offices, one medical laboratories), multi-use (62 children, 214 adults), non-problem, non-complaint building through long-term sampling for biological, chemical and particulate pollutants; and to assess the effects of cleaning on indoor air quality.

The study protocol included five months of "baseline" environmental measurements, a rigorous cleaning of the entire building, and, a feasible, standard cleaning program. Air, surface and dust data from monitoring prior to the cleaning program were compared with those obtained over seven months spanning winter, spring and summer seasons, while the improved housekeeping program was in place, to assess the effectiveness of cleaning on the indoor environment. Correlations between pollutants and other environmental factors are also presented.

This work involved a collaborative effort by Research Triangle Institute, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Criteria and Assessment Office (EPA-ECAO), the University of North Carolina a Chapel Hill (UNC), the building service contractor, and commercial cleaning and carpet industries, and their suppliers. Environmental monitoring included bioaerosol sampling, non-floor surface biologicals, floor dust samples for mass and biologicals, aerosol particle counts, aerosol dust mass, volatile organic compounds and comfort factors such as temperature, relative humidity, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide. Initially (July 1992), the building was inspected, and an extensive environmental screening was conducted to confirm it as a building without indoor air quality problems. Monitoring was performed monthly for the remainder of the study.

During the first four months of monitoring (September - December 1992), no changes were made in the routine housekeeping of the building. In December, outside professional companies cleaned the building to include walls, furniture, light fixtures, bathrooms, windows, tile floors and carpet. At the same time, new equipment and supplies were introduced, and the building housekeeping staff was trained to use the new equipment and to institute and follow a standardized or "improved housekeeping" program of environmental cleaning. From January to July 1993, monthly environmental monitoring continued as the improved housekeeping procedures were followed.

The study concluded that an organized cleaning program, based upon environmental management principles and fundamental environmental protection guidelines, contributed to improved indoor air quality through reduction of total suspended particles, total volatile organic compounds, and culturable bacteria and fungi.

So, what are we to learn from this study of a non-problem building? Foremost, we need to understand that maintenance and cleaning, properly applied, significantly improves the "green" status of any building. Second, we all should understand that maintenance and cleaning doesn't cost, it pays in terms of reduced depreciation of structural and contents components, higher productivity and reduced absenteeism, and positive employee and customer impression.

Green cleaning - it's simply the right thing to do.

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