Verona parents have typically started the school year with a note from teachers asking kids to bring in a container of antibacterial wipes along with their other school supplies. This year the wipes, and any other cleaning items that had been sent in, were sent home.
Why? Well, these wipes contain chemicals such as dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride and when kids touch them to clean their desks, those chemicals go not only on the surface being cleaned but also into kids bodies through their skin. Just before school started, parents met with Superintendent Charles Sampson to talk about the health problems that the wipes pose. He made the decision to have the wipes sent home and had Verona’s new school facilities director, Paul McDevitt, inventory what conventional cleaning supplies remain in each school. Verona is getting ready to clean green.
Why are we doing this? A growing number of studies show that classrooms are unhealthy because of what is being used to clean them. The Environmental Working Group, which works to raise awareness of health problems caused by toxic contaminates, says that classroom chemicals “can cause or exacerbate asthma, and [children] breathe in a complex set of indoor air contaminants with lungs that are still developing.” Bleach and other commercial cleaners can cause an asthma response in children leading to loss of focus and concentration, poor testing and missed school days. The Environmental Protection Agency says asthma contributes to approximately 14.7 million missed school days each year nationally. Just over 6% of the children in the Verona public schools have documented cases of asthma.
Recognizing those health problems, in the summer of 2009 and again in January 2010, state Assemblyman Reed Gusciora introduced bill A1848 compelling schools and day cares with more than 50 children to replace commercial cleaning products with green cleaners. The bill is not yet a law, but there is plenty of precedent for the change: nine states currently have legislation for sustainable green cleaning. And our kids are asking for it. In January 2009, a group of 3rd and 4th graders from Laning Avenue School asked the Verona Board of Education to switch to green cleaners. Although Gusciora’s bill is not yet law, making the change to green cleaning products in advance of the law will not be a violation of any current laws regarding materials used to clean schools.
So how do we clean green and not bust our budget? It’s not as big a problem as you might think. In the retail world, green cleaning products cost more in part because retailers know consumers will pay a premium for them. Carol Westinghouse of Informed Green Solutions, a group that works to educate institutional buyers about green cleaners and pest control products, says that is not so much the case when it comes to institutional green cleaning products. “They [industrial green cleaners] have very different pricing from retail products and have become cost neutral,” she says. Westinghouse adds that schools who use certified green cleaning products are finding that they protect the staff, protect children’s health and growing bodies, and protect the school itself because they are less harsh on building materials. This could help to extend the investment that Verona just made to update its schools.
So what’s next? Both Superintendent Sampson and facilities director McDevitt are taking these changes seriously. “We are committed to assuring a safe environment for all school community members regarding the types of cleaning products and other chemicals that are used in our schools,” says Sampson, “and will continue to explore the use of green products as viable alternatives to traditional cleaning products where applicable.” Mr. McDevitt is evaluating alternatives based on price, quality and the least environmental impact, as well as drafting uniform cleaning rules for all schools. In the meantime, the schools are using soap and water for cleaning.
“Verona should be congratulated,” says Gusciora, “for stepping up to the plate to improve the health of children and pave the way for a more sustainable New Jersey.”