Focusing In on Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)
School administrators have known for years that poor indoor air quality (IAQ) can have a negative impact on the health and performance of students, teachers and all other staff. And, according to the Asthma Initiative of Michigan (AIM), which is designed to help educate parents, teachers, and school administrators about the negative impacts of poor IAQ, one of the many triggers of asthma, especially for children, is the cleaning solutions normally used to maintain schools.
Cleaning chemicals – traditional as well as some that have been certified Green by ECOLOGO, Green Seal and Safer Choice (DfE) – certainly are not the only culprits. Other offenders include paint, floor and wall coverings, furniture, and newly manufactured products that typically use glue and have other ingredients that can release large amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as well as other chemical emissions. However, cleaning chemicals remain high on the list. And not only could cleaning chemicals trigger asthma attacks, they also could be a root cause for poor school attendance, illness while at school, and an overall drop in school performance.
A study published in 2015 from Harvard University1 also looked into IAQ issues and how they can affect people but that research took an entirely different approach; instead of looking at the problems of poor IAQ, it focused on the benefits of good IAQ – that is, air that has far fewer pollutants or impurities.
According to the study, “people who work in well-ventilated offices with below-average levels of indoor pollutants and carbon dioxide have significantly higher cognitive functioning scores, in such crucial areas as responding to a crisis or developing strategy, than those that work in offices with typical levels.” Cognitive function refers to fundamental functions of the brain, including reasoning, awareness, perception, judgment, and intuition. Especially in a school environment, we would want to protect the cognitive function of children in all ways possible.2
Starting With the Easy Work First
Let’s say you are a district school administrator and that it has been scientifically proved that the IAQ in some of your schools is considered very poor, with amounts that can negatively affect children’s cognitive function, as well as the health of everyone using the schools. You need to take steps – ones that will have the most impact on improving IAQ – as quickly as possible.
Your decision – a decision most people would agree with in this situation – would be to transfer all cleaning solutions used in the school from traditional cleaning products to those that are green certified by the organizations mentioned earlier as well as by GREENGUARD, a division of UL Environment. We will discuss why later.
Switching to green-certified products is one of the easiest, least costly, and most expedient ways to help improve the IAQ in the school. However, our story is not over.
Most administrators and cleaning professionals believe that green certification organizations all follow the same or similar environmental standards and criteria when analyzing cleaning solutions. As a result, the issue is no longer whether these certified products will help improve IAQ; it is how well they perform in the school and, of course, how much they cost.
However, assuming all of these products are environmentally equal could be a big mistake. While it is true these certification bodies have similar criteria, there is a difference among them, and that is in their emphasis. Simply, the different certification organizations tend to put more weight on some environmental issues than on others, and that includes IAQ.
Exploring Emphasis Issues
One way we can explain these emphasis issues is to use the example of different car models made by the same manufacturer. Let’s say a manufacturer makes three different models, all fairly similar and all about the same price. However, each model emphasizes different features. For instance, one model’s focus is speed and agility, another’s is comfort, and the third’s is reduced fuel consumption.
So each model is manufactured with a different emphasis to appeal to different consumers. Similarly, the three certification bodies we just mentioned have different emphases. For instance:
ECOLOGO: Like the others, this organization certifies products proved to have a reduced impact on the health of people (product users as well as building occupants and visitors) and the environment when compared to traditional products. However, it puts more emphasis on environmental life cycle considerations. This means the product is evaluated from its development to its eventual disposal. The product must meet and pass each required attribute within a specific product standard in order for it to be green certified by this organization.
Green Seal: This is the oldest certification organization in the United States. It now appears to be putting more focus on sustainability issues – helping to further protect natural resources and reduce waste. Historically, Green Seal has focused on products used in the professional cleaning industry, such as cleaning solutions. However, today it is also putting emphasis on what is termed “green cleaning best practices,” which refers to green cleaning procedures and performance that help protect the health of building users.
GREENGUARD: Of the three certification organizations, GREENGUARD places the most emphasis on protecting indoor air quality (IAQ). For instance, it looks more closely at and demands higher performance standards regarding such things as minimizing the release of VOC and other chemical emissions from products being analyzed. While all three organizations do look into VOC issues, no other does so to the same extent that GREENGUARD does.
What Have We Learned Here?
The most important thing we have learned in this discussion is that switching from traditional to green certified cleaning products is the easiest and typically the least costly way to help improve IAQ in a school facility.
Also, we should know that as they have evolved over the years, the leading certification organizations have moved in different directions. While they may have the same or similar criteria, it’s their emphasis that makes them different.
And while GREENGUARD does put more focus on IAQ issues, school administrators are urged to evaluate the effectiveness, ease of use, and cost of use, etc. of all environmentally preferable products. The goal is to avoid trial-and-error purchasing decisions. IAQ issues are too big a concern for that. Instead, decisions about the products selected for use in schools should be well thought out and based on a variety of criteria.
Mike Sawchuk is chief business development officer for Avmor, a leading manufacturer and marketer of professional cleaning products in North America. He can be reached through his company website at www.avmor.com.
1 News story from Harvard School of Medicine, October 26, 2015, Green office environments linked with higher cognitive function scores.
2 While carbon dioxide (CO2) is a natural component of air, the average adult’s breath contains about 35,000 to 50,000 parts per million of CO2, which is 100 times higher than the CO2 normally found in outdoor air. As a result, CO2 can contribute to poor IAQ.