New law ensures schools are scrubbed with safer products
Summer custodial work has sometimes left harsher side effects than sore muscles for Don Dixon.
Dixon, who works summers doing custodial work in the Champaign school district, said one of the cleaning solutions he used one summer at Westview Elementary School produced blood blisters on his skin.
Not so the cleaning solutions he used last week at Washington Elementary School in Champaign, where he was wiping down chairs and desktops. The cleaners he used might not smell like pine trees, but they are environmentally friendly and don't have the harsh effects that some of the old chemicals did.
Nearly all of Champaign's schools have gone green when it comes to cleaning supplies, and so have other school districts in the area. A new state law, the Green Cleaning Schools Act, went into effect in May. It requires all elementary and secondary schools to use environmentally sensitive cleaning supplies.
"The idea was really to ensure the health of all employees in schools and students who are exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis," said Kate Tomford, the senior policy advisor to Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, whose office is getting out information about the act. "On the environmental side there are many (benefits, like) pollution reduction."
A "green" product is "one that is less harmful to the environment," Tomford said, "products that you can find that are less toxic in terms of the chemicals involved."
The chemicals used previously bothered different people, said David Wooley, a custodian at Washington. "Some guys broke out real bad," he said.
They haven't had any problems with the new cleaners, which have no fragrances or dyes.
"It's as green as it can be for a disinfectant," said Scott McNish, assistant director of custodians for the Champaign school district.
Disinfectants are not included under the act, because they are registered as pesticides and kill organisms, Tomford said. As new products and technologies become available, a council will review the cleaning guidelines every year.
The Champaign schools have dispensers for the cleaning solutions that mix the chemicals with water in the proper ratio, eliminating any errors in measuring and any waste, McNish said.
"Before, it could be a problem because if guys don't take time to measure properly, they could be using it at unsafe concentration," he said.
The concentrations are more diluted than in the past but, McNish said, they work just as well as the old products.
"It's been a really pleasant surprise, because everyone is real happy with the chemicals we're using now," he said. "I thought there would be guys saying, 'Oh, this isn't strong enough.' There have been no complaints."
Tomford said that has echoed the positive comments she has heard from other school districts. "It seems that the products are well-received," she said. Maintenance staff "don't get a headache from inhaling the vapors of the products."
Urbana schools have been using a range of green cleaning products for years, said Ota Dossett, the district's facilities director.
In Heritage school district, Superintendent Andy Larson said, the district contracts with a company which now supplies green chemicals to the schools, saying the district is "cutting edge as far as school districts are concerned with staying on top of staying as green as possible."
The Rantoul City Schools district tested some green cleaning solutions in its junior high for the last couple of years, and is now switching over to those products in its other buildings as well.
"It works and actually does a nice job," said Steve Hatfield, supervisor of buildings and grounds.
"The guys really noticed the carpet shampoo," he added. "It is fantastic. It's better than anything we've used in the past."
Danville schools will be inviting vendors to show the custodians new green cleaners and supplies. Then, a committee will evaluate the new items, decide which they like best and send out for bids, said George Schildt, the district's director of building and grounds.
Once that process is completed, the district will finish up its supply of the old products before moving greenward – a provision allowed under the law, Tomford said.
But many products Danville schools use are already greener, Schildt said – like low-acid cleaner and special filters on the vacuums. "We've been ahead of the curve on most of this stuff most of the time," he said.
Tomford said the goal of the act is not to increase schools' cleaning costs. "There is a provision again in the act itself that if schools find that green cleaning is not economically feasible ... they can notify the council of that finding and then use the conventional products," she said, adding that no school districts have opted out so far.
McNish said the cost of the green chemicals is roughly comparable to the old products. It may cost the district a little more to go green, but that is likely offset by a reduction in overuse of chemicals by using the dispensers.
And, he said, "if it's better for the students and the environment and the staff, it's worth it."
THE ACT'S FACTS
The Illinois Green Cleaning Schools Act:
— Requires qualified "green" products in six categories: bathroom cleaners; carpet cleaners; general purpose and hard floor surface cleaners; glass, window and mirror cleaners; hand cleaners and hand soaps; and paper products.
— Criteria for preferred products: minimal presence of harmful chemicals, biodegradable, low toxicity, low flammability, bio-based, designed for use in cold water.
— Those wanting to buy green household products can look for certifications such as Green Seal or EcoLogo, indicating the products meet certain guidelines. Some products bearing those certifications are available at retail, but many are available for industries or businesses only.
Source: Guidelines for the Illinois Green Cleaning Schools Act, Illinois lieutenant governor's office.