Responsible Purchasing Network

Cleaners: Social & Environmental

According to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-funded project, the ingredients found in one out of every three commercial cleaning products are potentially harmful (JPPP, 1999).  Custodial staff and others who spend time indoors, such as office workers,health employees, and students, are particularly susceptible to the healthrisks posed by these products. Health problems associated with cleaning chemicals include reproductive disorders, major organ damage, permanent eye damage, asthma and other respiratory ailments, headaches, dizziness, and fatigue (Culver, 2002; EPA, 2007). These chemicals can also find their way intolakes, streams, and other water bodies (some of which may serve as drinking water sources), presenting further health and other environmental concerns.

Hazardous Substances

Cleaning products contain a variety of hazardous substances, including Alkylphenol Ethoxylates (APEs), carcinogens, corrosives, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Furthermore, many cleaning products in concentrated form are considered hazardous waste, which presents handling, storage, and disposal concerns (EPA,2000; EPA, 2003).

Common cleaning ingredients that raise human health and environmental concerns

  • Corrosive chemicals and strong irritants such as chlorine-based cleaners, are
    known to cause serious skin or eye damage (HPC 2006).
  • Products with a very high or very low pH level are also strongly irritating to the skin or eyes and should be avoided.
  • Fragrances are added to products such as detergents and fabric softeners and
    can cause respiratory irritation and headaches and are particularly harmful to
    those with asthma or allergies (NG 2006).
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are found in most conventional cleaning
    products and contribute to poor indoor air quality, often prompting asthma
    attacks. Outdoors, VOCs are linked to smog formation.
  • Carcinogens and a variety of other hazardous chemicals are present in many
    cleaners at low toxicity levels. Some have been listed by sources such as the U.S.
    Department of Labor as known carcinogens especially when mixed with other
    compounds in the atmosphere. Long-term exposure to carcinogens drastically
    increases the risk of developmental disorders and cancer. Chemicals including
    diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA), commonly found in allpurpose
    cleaners and detergents, react with contaminants, mainly nitrate in
    detergents, and form carcinogens that can readily penetrate the skin (ToxNET
  • Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) break down and produce compounds that are
    suspected aquatic toxins and human endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors
    act as artificial hormones in the human body, potentially causing developmental
    disorders. The hormone-like effects of APEs observed in laboratory studies are
    similar to the reproductive and developmental disorders seen in wildlife exposed
    to polluted waters.


Detergents disposed into sewer systems can contaminate local freshwater supplies. In a May 2002 national study of stream water contaminants, the U.S. Geological Survey found persistent detergent metabolites in 69% of streams tested (NG, 2006). Phosphates from detergents overload aquatic ecosystems with nutrients. With excess nutrients available, algae blooms on the water’s surface, blocking out sunlight and causing reduced plant growth below the surface. When plants stop photosynthesizing, they fail to produce oxygen, an essential element of any healthy aquatic ecosystem.
Fish and other aquatic animals die without sufficient dissolved oxygen supplies. One pound of phosphorous can fuel growth of nearly 700 pounds of algae (DOE, 2008), leading to further dissolved oxygen depletion as the algae decomposes. Some algal
blooms are also toxic and carcinogenic (EPA, 2004).

Bans on phosphorus-containing detergents in Canada, the EU and Japan, have led to phosphorous-free laundry detergents on the United States market. Phosphates have been banned in most states but they are still used in other detergents, such as those used in automatic dishwashers. In fact, dishwashing detergents account for an estimated 10 to 12 percent of the phosphorous entering municipal wastewater plants in Washington State (DOE, 2008). Other powdered detergents may contain high levels of sodium filler since sodium easily dissolves in water. However, higher sodium concentrations make it difficult for waste water to be re-used in a safe and affordable way. Water containing high levels of salt negatively affects soil and plant life, as well as metal pipes and equipment.

Social Responsibility

Institutions have a responsibility to protect the health and safety of all workers and users of their facilities. Those who spend much of their time indoors, like students, patients, and office workers, are particularly susceptible to health problems caused by cleaning products. According to a survey conducted by Corporate Express, nearly one in three workers say they possess allergies that are aggravated by environmental conditions in their offices (CE, 2007). Four million janitors in North America also experience unnecessarily high injury rates with some experts estimating that 6 out of every 100 are injured by the chemicals they use (Culver, 2002). Studies have shown that janitorial workers have some of the highest rates of occupational asthma in the country (Culver, 2002). Children and younger students are especially vulnerable to the chemicals found in cleaning agents because they have the most contact with their surroundings and are most susceptible to the long term impact of chemicals on their developing bodies (Landrigan, 2004)

Air Quality

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) contribute to poor indoor and outdoor air quality and are found in many cleaning products. General purpose cleaners contribute approximately eight percent of the total non-vehicular outdoor VOC emissions. Air quality is affected at every level of production and use of cleaners. During transportation, chemicals can leak and release toxins into the atmosphere and
surrounding communities.

Those particularly at risk are people who spend a majority of their time indoors. On
average, Americans spend about 90 percent of their days indoors where air pollutants can be two-to-five times higher than outdoor levels (OFEE, 2007). Exposure to these
compounds can create health risks, including: respiratory irritation and asthma; eye and skin irritation; nausea; headache; and cancer. An article in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine documented a 2003 study that correlated a high association of asthma with exposure to cleaning products. Of the 1,915 confirmed
cases of work-related asthma in this study, 12% were associated with workplace exposure to cleaning products (Sattler, 2004). Switching to green cleaners can significantly improve indoor air quality; reduce cleaning-related health problems and absenteeism, and increase productivity and morale (Fisk, 1997). Statistics show that improved indoor air quality from green cleaning has increased student performance significantly in math and science (McMorrow, 2002). Charles Young ElementarySchool  in Washington, DC implemented a program that addressed total environmental quality, specifically green cleaning maintenance. (See Figure 2)


Energy and GHG Emissions 

Approximately 5 billion pounds of institutional cleaning and coating chemicals are used annually in America today (OS, 2008). The chemical industry uses fossil fuels for energy in the production of cleaners. Fossil fuels are non-renewable resources that emit CO2 into the atmosphere, a major cause of global warming. Production of cleaners requires energy from these fuels during raw material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, use and disposal. Petroleum and natural gas are the major sources of hydrocarbons from which the chemicals are made. Energy is also used to mine phosphates, carbonates and silicates that are used in cleaners to remove grease and oil from surfaces.


Creative Commons License This work by the Responsible Purchasing Network is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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