Clean but gasping

21st of March 2017
Clean but gasping

It was in the early 2000s that studies about the harmful effects of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) were first published and the professional cleaning industry began to take notice. Mike Sawchuk, chief business development officer for US cleaning solutions producer Avmor takes a closer look at the “no-VOCs” claim now made by many manufacturers.

A 2004 study published in the British Medical Association’s journal Thorax reported that children exposed to higher levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) - in this case found in household cleaning products - were four times more likely to suffer from asthma than children who were not exposed to the household cleaning products. The researchers concluded, “given that some VOCs are carcinogenic and some may be significantly related to asthma, it is important that an increased understanding of the factors that affect their indoor concentration is achieved.”

It was in the early 2000s, when this and similar studies about the harmful impact of VOCs were first published and that the professional cleaning industry started becoming more ‘green focused’. Jansan chemical manufacturers were re-evaluating their cleaning products to better understand their ingredients and their potential negative impact on the environment.

Fortunately by this time, Green Seal, a not-for-profit organisation, ECOLOGO, GREENGUARD (both now part of UL Environment) EU-Ecolabel, and Nordic Swan had created standards and criteria – such as GS-40, Green Seal’s green standards for floor care products - to help manufacturers decipher what ingredients could and could not be included in their cleaning solutions. This would help ensure they could be green certified and proven safer for children, product users, building occupants, and the environment.

Key concerns

One of the certification organisations’ key concerns was eliminating - or at least minimising - the VOCs in a cleaning product that negatively impact indoor air quality (IAQ). This also meant people in the professional cleaning industry had to learn more about VOCs to understand why this was happening. The US Natural Library of Medicine defines VOCs this way:

“Volatile organic compounds, sometimes referred to as VOCs, are organic compounds that easily become vapours or gases (becoming airborne). Along with carbon, they contain elements such as hydrogen, oxygen, fluorine, chlorine, bromine, sulphur or nitrogen.”

In addition to posing considerable health risks as they become airborne, some VOCs contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, otherwise known as ambient ozone or more commonly, smog.
VOCs were - note the past tense because they have since been reduced from so many products - found in cleaning solutions, degreasers, paints, glues, air fresheners, wood preservatives and many more products we use daily, both in our personal lives and, for those of us in the professional cleaning industry, in our work.

The US Natural Library of Medicine also reports that some VOCs are known carcinogens, while many more are “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens”. Furthermore, it says: “Long-term exposure to volatile organic compounds can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. Short-term exposure to volatile organic compounds can cause eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, fatigue, loss of coordination, allergic skin reactions, nausea, and memory impairment.” In most cases, this results from inhaling the VOCs.

So if VOCs are so bad for our health, and we have actually suspected this for more than 25 years, why were they found in literally hundreds of products in the first place? To answer this, we could compare the use of VOCs to the example of lipsticks that include lead. We know lead can be harmful, but the lead helps the lipstick last longer on the lips and allows manufacturers to make a wider variety of pigments, explaining why it was used and why some manufacturers still continue to use it.

Similarly the VOC-containing ingredients in many products simply helped the product work more effectively. This is why, in order to reduce VOCs in their products, manufacturers of all kinds of products, from paint to cleaning solutions, had to develop ingredients that could replicate the benefits of VOCs.

The “no VOCs” claim

Several jansan manufacturers of green-certified cleaning solutions throughout Europe and in North America proudly state their cleaning solutions have low or no VOCs. This suggests to facility managers, cleaning professionals and the distributors that market these products that they will have none of the health-risking effects of VOCs when they become airborne.

School administrators, for instance, concerned about asthma caused by VOCs that become airborne from cleaning solutions now can breathe a sigh of relief because they have taken a worthy step toward protecting the indoor air quality of their schools.

However, that sigh of relief by school administrators and others may be unjustified. The problem is the claim of low or no VOCs often means that there are no ozone-depleting VOCs in the product. So while the product likely will not harm the ozone layer, which protects life on Earth, it still may include VOCs that could have a negative impact on indoor air quality with possible health-risking repercussions.

Eliminating the risk

Facility managers who want to select cleaning solutions that indeed have no VOCs at all can look to manufacturers that have started having their cleaning solutions dual-certified by two different certification organisations that focus on different environmental aspects. For instance Green Seal or ECOLOGO might be selected because they put considerable focus on the overall - cradle to grave - sustainability of a product while another organisation such as GREENGUARD would be asked to certify the same product because they put more emphasis on chemical emissions, which are often VOCs, that could impact indoor air quality.

Thanks to the presence of the different certification organisations, even though negative impacts on indoor air quality are ever-present problems, we can say that those problems, at least those caused by cleaning solutions, have been reduced considerably in the past decade. However, we still have some way to go.  Fortunately we can expect the jansan industry to find even more ways to help protect the air we breathe, further reducing cleaning’s impact on children, the users of the products, building occupants, and of course the environment.

Measuring VOCs

The amount, or concentration, of VOCs present in the indoor air is expressed in a variety of units. Commonly used units are parts per billion (ppb), parts per million (ppm), gram per meter (gpm), and micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3). A microgram is one one-millionth of a gram. If the concentration is 1 ppb (or 1 ppm), for every billion (or million) molecules of air there is one molecule of the VOC. If the concentration is 1 µg/m3, then for every cubic meter volume of air there is 1 microgram of mass (weight) of the VOC.


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