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air quality section (aqs)

Types of cleaning products

Cleaning products are chemical agents/solutions that are used to remove soil and stains from indoor surfaces.  They differ from disinfectants and sanitizers, which are antimicrobial agents that can kill or reduce the number of undesirable microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. However, some off-the-shelf cleaners do contain antimicrobial agents so that they can clean as well as disinfect surfaces.  Some cleaners also contain fragrance components for creating favorable odor characteristics.  

The use of cleaning products is ubiquitous, with a wide variety of types and formulations available in the market.  Based on the application type, cleaning products can be divided into general-purpose cleaners and specialty cleaners (such as kitchen cleaners, bathroom cleaners, glass cleaners, carpet cleaners, floor care products, and furniture cleaners). Based on the product format, cleaning products can be divided into powdered products that can be dissolved to the proper strength, liquid products that can be diluted or used full strength, and liquid products used in trigger sprays, aerosol cans, or pump-actuated bottles.  The ingredients and their concentrations vary greatly from product to product and change rapidly as the available ingredients and consumers' needs change. The details of product formulation are proprietary information generally not disclosed by the manufacturers.  However, if a cleaning product contains hazardous chemicals, it must be accompanied by a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) (PDF) that discloses the identity of any hazardous chemicals, health, and physical hazards, exposure limits, and precautions. 

Because different chemicals may be used in different cleaners, you should always check the product specifications and application instructions before use.  Also, you should never mix cleaning products unless you can confirm that the mixture is safe and effective, as some mixtures of safe products can become very hazardous.

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Cleaning products, indoor air quality, and health?

Cleaning products sometimes contain chemical ingredients listed as asthmagens, carcinogens, reproductive toxins, or toxic air contaminants. Ingredients of concern that have been frequently identified in cleaning products include quaternary ammonium chlorides or "quats;" glycols and glycol ethers such as 2-butoxyethanol, ethanolamine; and some alcohols such as benzyl alcohol; ammonia; and chlorinated hydrocarbons. When applied on surfaces, the volatile components of these chemicals will be emitted into indoor air during and after the cleaning processes and may adversely affect indoor air quality and occupant health. In addition to the product formulation, the concentration in indoor air of VOCs released from cleaning products will also be influenced by other factors such as the physical characteristics of the cleaning product (e.g., aerosols vs. liquids), the type of cleaning tasks (e.g., application rate and procedure), and the ventilation rate of the building.  The way the cleaning product is delivered can have a substantial effect on exposures to the chemicals in the product. For instance, aerosol sprays emit larger numbers of much smaller droplets of cleaner at high velocities, resulting in much greater inhalation exposure to whatever is in the cleaner. Pump dispensers, in contrast, emit smaller numbers of larger droplets at a lower velocity.

Besides the primary chemical emissions, constituents in cleaning products can also react with oxidants (such as ozone) in indoor air and produce many other chemicals with adverse effects.  For example, terpenes associated with fragrances (such as pinene and limonene) can quickly react with ozone and generate secondary pollutants including formaldehyde and ultrafine particles.

The most significant health effect potentially caused by inhalation exposure due to the use of cleaning products is the development or exacerbation of respiratory symptoms or asthma.  In California, the Work-Related Asthma Prevention Program (WRAPP) in the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has found that the rate of work-related asthma among janitors and cleaners is nearly double the rate in the overall workforce. Nationally, in states that keep track of WRA, 12% of all confirmed cases of WRA are associated with cleaning products. Although there is no well-known large-scale study to conclude whether home cleaning agents can cause asthma, some research has suggested possible links between using household cleaning sprays and adult asthma.

Cleaning products may also pose hazards from ingestion and dermal contact, in addition to inhalation.

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"Green" cleaning agents

Awareness of the health effects of exposures from the use of cleaning products has led to the popularity of "green" cleaning initiatives, especially for schools. "Green cleaning" is a general term that describes the use of cleaning methods with environmentally friendly ingredients and chemicals to protect both human health and environmental quality, while still cleaning effectively.  For example, the State of New York has established a green cleaning program to promote adoption of effective green cleaning practices. The Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) Program of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also provides guidelines on how to select and purchase green cleaning products.

In general, green cleaning products contain fewer chemicals with known health effects and therefore are more desirable. However, attention to the following aspects should be taken when selecting cleaning products:

  • Manufacturers sometimes use vague or generic "green" claims just for marketing purposes.  You should carefully read the product specifications to make sure that the green features are clearly and specifically defined and match their green claims. Alternatively, one can look for third-party green certification on the product label. The most common green certifications for cleaning products include Green Seal (Standard GS-37 for industrial and institutional cleaners, and Standard GS-8 for general-purpose, bathroom, glass, and carpet cleaners used for household purposes) and EcoLogo (Standard CCD-146 for hard surface cleaners, and Standard CCD-147 for Hard Floor Care Products). Note that the standards may have different versions, and products certified under earlier versions of a green standard may not automatically meet the requirements of the latest standard, which is generally more stringent and health protective.
  • Although green cleaning products can reduce primary chemical emissions, green products may still (even with third-party green certifications) lead to health concerns because of secondary pollutants generated from reactions between indoor ozone and some constituents in the cleaning products such as pinene and limonene.

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More information

Green California has a dedicated webpage on broad issues related to cleaning products for building maintenance, including environmental and health issues, laws and policies, performance, availability, cost, and specifications and additional resources and websites.

The California Air Resource Board has information on cleaning products and indoor air quality.

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