Most day-to-day cleaning operations will require a number of chemical products to carry out the work. But just how toxic are cleaning supplies? And is there a safer alternative? Jamie Harris reports.
16 February 2015
Commercial cleaning typically requires two elements: people and product. The people are required to carry out cleaning tasks, and the product is used to ensure adequate levels of 'spick and span'.
There is much debate surrounding cleaners' rights, and facilities teams have also been leading efficiency drives on cleaning services for a considerable time.
But innovation in the product - which Martin Booth, managing director at Green World Innovations, a sanitiser and disinfectant manufacturer, believes poses significant threats to workers and the environment - is arguably a lower priority.
Booth believes that cleaning products can have a significant impact on employee wellbeing.
"The range of chemical cleaning products that are regularly used now have a greater impact on employee health. There is an increased focus on workplace health initiatives and reducing chemical exposure for employees.
"Hundreds of cleaning products, even some of those marketed as 'green' or 'natural', can inflict serious harm on unwary users.
"This is highlighted by the World Health Organisation's study on the impact of certain carcinogenic properties in chemical cleaning products on asthma suffers."
Mike Boxall, managing director at cleaning consultancy i-Clean Systems, is also concerned about the risks that can arise from the chemicals in cleaning products.
"Mixing an acidic toilet cleaner with bleach, for example, produces chlorine gas which can be fatal, particularly if used by a cleaner in a restricted space such as a toilet cubicle."
However, if the right precautions are taken, says Boxall, cleaners can operate safely. "The risks are easily controlled through the use of appropriate PPE and the adequate training of users. Any cleaner that has completed a framework qualification from awarding bodies such as City & Guilds, for example, will have covered an element of chemical competence."
Down the drain
"Disposing of cleaning chemicals can also pose a problem for businesses and those using them," says Booth.
Boxall concurs: "Even dirty mop bucket water cannot be disposed of via storm water drains without risk of prosecution from the water authority or the Environment Agency."
Phosphates, says Booth, are water-softening mineral additives that were once used in detergents and cleaning projects. The phosphates would act as a fertiliser, spawning overgrowth of algae in waterways, thus depleting the water's oxygen supply for other wildlife.
"Many products continue to use other chemicals that are petroleum-based, "contributing to the depletion of this non-renewable resource," says Booth.
"The plastic bottles used to package cleaning products pose another environmental problem by contributing to the mounds of solid waste that must be landfilled, incinerated or, in not enough cases, recycled."
European regulation stipulates that classification, labelling and packaging of cleaning substances and mixtures must adhere to European Union standard, as set out in European Regulation (EC) 1272/2008, which came into force in January 2009.
The Classification, Labelling & Packaging (CLP) regulations require organisations to reclassify, label and package products, denoting hazards and dangerous substances. The latest European CLP Regulation will be enforced from 1 June 2015. It will apply to all EU member states, including the UK.
More information on the CLP Regulation is available on the Health and Safety Executive website at tinyurl.com/hseclpreg.
Additionally, under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) legislation, it is the employer's responsibility to protect staff from risks when using classified substances in the workplace.
This, says Boxall, involves assessing workers' health and determining ways to remove or reduce them and then "informing, instructing and training workers in the nature and degree of the hazard and the precautions to take to protect themselves and others".
To achieve this, it is usually necessary to conduct a COSHH risk assessment on each product in use.
Adapt to survive
"The cleaning industry has been good at adapting to change with regard to the use of chemicals," says Boxall. "The entire window-cleaning industry was revolutionised when it began using reverse osmosis to treat tap water for cleaning windows. Since then, a number of ionisation and electrochemical activation systems have been developed that minimise the use of chemicals within the cleaning process.
"Certain manufacturers return recycled water back into the environment cleaner than it is taken out and there has been significant investment by many of them to be truly sustainable."
Indeed, some surfaces are more effectively cleaned without chemicals - BT Sport’s LED floor, for example, is cleaned by just using water.
A number of FM organisations, including ISS Facility Services, and Coca-Cola Enterprises in the Netherlands, are reported to have transferred to chemical-free cleaning.
Although this method may not be effective for every surface, the threats chemical products pose to both people and the planet are evident.