By Cara Matthews
Journal Albany bureau
ALBANY Products with names such as Earth’s Choice, Sustainable Earth and Green Knight will fill janitors’ closets this fall as schools around the state comply with a new law that requires “environmentally friendly” cleaning supplies.
Concerns about the harmful health effects chemicals can have, especially on children, and a realization that cleaners with reduced amounts of potentially dangerous ingredients are increasingly available, prompted the legislation, which takes effect today.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates human exposure to air pollutants indoors can be two to five times higher than outdoor levels. Some of the culprits are cleaners, waxes and deodorizers. Reducing or eliminating potentially harmful ingredients helps protect the environment and water supply, according to the legislation’s sponsors.
The state School Boards Association supports the measure but has had some questions about the law, such as whether the “greener” products would cost more and clean as well as traditional ones, spokesman David Ernst said.
“There are certainly concerns about student health that may be addressed by some of these products,” he said. “(For) a lot of these concerns … the source of the health problem hasn’t been pinpointed, but certainly chemicals can be one.”
Prices of the environmentally friendly cleaners are comparable to others on the market, said Christine Burling, At least two districts in Dutchess County will have a jump start on other local schools. The Pine Plains school district has been using green and environmentally friendly cleaning supplies for about four years, while the Rhinebeck school district has been using the products for about two years.
“The products are easier on the people who are applying them,” said Thomas Garrick, director of operations and maintenance for Pine Plains schools. “It’s just healthier on the people who apply them.”
Because the prices are so similar, the district didn’t need to make too big an adjustment, Garrick said.
Laurie Rich, president of the Rhinebeck school board, is vice president of programs for INFORM, Inc. The nonprofit organization examines the effects of business practices on the environment and on human health.
The Rhinebeck school district made the switch after INFORM performed a free audit of its cleaning supplies. She said the greener cleaning products have an immediate benefit not only to the workers who apply them, but to the entire school population.
“It’s well documented that when you clean up the quality of the air we breathe indoors, students’ attendance rates go up, attention spans in the classroom improve and students perform better,” Rich said.
Greg Decker, custodial supervisor at the Rhinebeck school district, said the green products were comparable in performance.
“The transition was difficult because there are a lot of items out there that we had to try out and we were just trying to hope for the best,” Decker said. “We wanted to make sure that the products that were on the market could do the same job.”
In some cases, it may take a little longer for the green or environmentally friendlier products to work. For instance, environmentally friendly bathroom disinfectant may take longer to work than traditional bathroom cleaners.
Since bathroom cleaners are designed to kill germs, it’s impossible to find a cleaner that is completely green.
Schools don’t have to throw away cleaners that aren’t on the state’s list of approved products for cleaning products, vacuum cleaners and sanitary paper products, she said. They can use them up before buying green ones. The new law applies to buildings and grounds at all public and private elementary and secondary schools.
A number of groups and parents have criticized the regulations, saying they don’t go far enough to protect children. The state stands by the guidelines, Burling said.
“They’re a living document. As science and technology evolve, we anticipate that we’ll be making changes,” she said.
The Office of General Services and the state Education Department have to issue a report by June 1 on the law’s impact on schools.
The legislation, which passed in 2005, was sponsored by state Sen. Steve Saland, R-Poughkeepsie, and Sen. James Alesi, R-Perinton, Monroe County.
Grassroots Environmental Education, a nonprofit on Long Island, thinks the state should have adopted stricter guidelines, said Patti Wood, executive director. For example, the organization wanted to exclude all products with added fragrances and chemicals that can negatively affect the endocrine system, she said.
“Overall, it didn’t go far enough. They missed an opportunity to really protect children, who are uniquely vulnerable to all kinds of environmental exposures,” she said.
Children, especially young ones, are more likely to come into contact with cleaning chemicals, and they are more vulnerable than adults because of their size and age, she said.
The state’s list of products notes which ones have added fragrances, and the guidelines recommend reducing the use of those to the extent possible.
Most cleaners on the state’s list are certified by Green Seal or Environmental Choice. According to Wood, the standards are not as strict as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment program, which includes information on eco-friendly cleaning products.
A statement on the Office of General Services’ Web site said the agency anticipates working with the Design for the Environment program, among others, in updating regulations, but any changes will be based on “solid scientific studies and research.”
Potential harmful effects of cleaners, waxes and deodorizers are skin and eye irritation, asthma attacks and neurological effects, Wood said. Some parents have taken their children out of school because of exposure to chemicals there, she said.
“If there is a single ingredient in any cleaning product that will cause an asthmatic attack, it would be the fragrance, and there are a lot of children with asthma in our schools,” she said.
Grassroots Environmental Education will provide information to each school about its own recommendations for green cleaning products, Wood said.
New York State United Teachers, the state’s largest union, backed the legislation as a good first step toward making schools healthier and safer for children and staff, spokesman Carl Korn said. But the union has a concern similar to that of Wood’s group.
“The legislation requires them to use green, healthy products but not the highest rated ones, and that’s something that we’re going to be working towards in the future,” he said.
The Civil Service Employees Association thinks the law is a good one but will require involvement from community members to make sure it is implemented on a local level, spokesman Stephen Madarasz said.
“I think all habits take a long time to change sometimes, so I think a lot of this will involve some grassroots involvement from people and our members,” he said.
Journal staff writer Rasheed Oluwa contributed to this report.