Green Cleaning: What you don’t know CAN hurt you


By Steve Ashkin

Invariably, one of the things that most impresses me when I attend tradeshows for the carpet cleaning and restoration industries is the entrepreneurial spirit of the attendees. My “takeaway” is that the industry is filled with men and women who have decided to make it on their own, improve their technical and marketing skills, and take some calculated risks, with the goal of becoming another American success story.

This is all very good. However, one “calculated risk” we must avoid is the chance of someone becoming ill as a result of cleaning carpets and upholstery. Such an incident can cause havoc for a budding entrepreneur. Yet it can and has happened. The hope now is, with new trends evolving in the Green cleaning chemical industry, it can be avoided in the future.

Several studies, dating back to the early 1980s, have linked the use of certain conventional carpet cleaning compounds to respiratory irritation, even asthma, in both residential and commercial settings. For instance, in one outbreak, workers in an office building experienced coughing and difficulty breathing after carpets had been recently cleaned. In a medical clinic, respiratory reactions were reported “immediately” after carpet cleaning; and in a day-care center, children complained of breathing difficulties, coughing, dry throat, headache, even eye irritation that persisted for weeks after the facility’s carpets had been cleaned.*

What is most important to note is that as far as can be deciphered, these reactions were not the result of the ways in which the carpets were cleaned. In fact, the technicians were likely experienced carpet cleaners using quality tools and equipment. The culprits, as referenced earlier, were instead the carpet cleaning compounds. Apparently specific ingredients in the chemicals resulted in these reactions.

Knowing what the problem ingredients were beforehand very likely would have avoided such incidents and protected the reputation of the carpet cleaning company that performed these services. This is why I, along with others whose goal is to minimize cleaning’s impact on health and the environment, have become a strong proponent for what is termed “full ingredient disclosure.”

If users are aware that one or more ingredient in a product might pose a health risk or trigger an allergic reaction—because the ingredients are clearly posted—they can select another product that does not contain those specific ingredients. This applies to Green cleaning products as well, which are known to be safer to use than conventional cleaning products. Even though they are safer, they still may contain ingredients that pose a health risk. Full ingredient disclosure is one of the next steps in Green cleaning and will likely have a significant impact on all in the professional cleaning industry, including carpet cleaning technicians.

Evolving…Though Not the Law

In September 2009, the Household Product Labeling and Disclosure Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate. If enacted, it would have required the manufacturers of household cleaning products (many of which are also used in commercial cleaning) to disclose all of the ingredients in the product on the product’s label or make it available in some way to the consumer, for instance on the manufacturer’s Web site.  The bill was batted around for a while, only to die in committee.

However, what has been evolving ever since the act was introduced is quite interesting and has significant parallels to the growth of Green cleaning and its impact on the professional cleaning industries, including carpet cleaning. Under pressure from some manufacturers of Green cleaning chemicals marketed to households, mega-players in the cleaning industry such as Clorox and SC Johnson have voluntarily begun disclosing more information about the ingredients used in the making of some of their products. And as they have done so, it appears more consumers have begun investigating the ingredients in cleaning chemicals, wanting to know more about them. At least one marketing executive in the field, Erick Ryan, cofounder and marketing executive with Method cleaning products, expects this chorus to grow stronger in years to come.

We see a very significant parallel here with the evolution of Green Cleaning. Initially, it was believed by many that the use of environmentally preferable cleaning products would only happen as a result of government action. While there has been some government action in recent years, especially on the state level, the transfer to Green Cleaning has for the most part been customer driven: the end customer wants the Green products, believing they are effective, healthier, and safer than what they have used before, and the market has delivered. In all likelihood, such pressure will result in full ingredient disclosure as well. (See sidebar: The Logistics of Full Ingredient Disclosure)

Complications to the Movement

At this point, many readers will agree that full ingredient disclosure has merits and that end users as well as consumers should have access to this information. So what’s the problem? Why is it not happening?

Here are some of the complications. First, some believe full ingredient disclosure is unnecessary because every cleaning chemical includes a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) listing chemical ingredients. While this is true, the MSDS does not list all the ingredients in a cleaning chemical but typically only those that are known to be hazardous over a specific threshold. In our carpet cleaning reaction examples mentioned earlier, the ingredients that caused the respiratory problems may not have been considered hazardous at the time and, as such, would not have been listed on the MSDS. Yet they caused health problems nonetheless.

Further, and of greater concern, many manufacturers believe divulging this information is like giving away their trade secrets. This is an understandable concern and one that a very active player in full ingredient disclosure, the Consumer Specialty Products Association (CSPA), a nonprofit trade association representing the interests of more than 250 companies, is working to resolve.

Putting Full Ingredient Disclosure to Work

The likelihood that some type of full ingredient disclosure program is developed is quite high. So what impact will this have on carpet cleaning technicians? Will it require them to become technocrats and bureaucrats—essentially the opposite of what being an entrepreneur is all about?

Most likely not. What it means is if a carpet cleaning company were called in to clean the carpets in a day-care center, for example, they could now double-check that none of the ingredients found in the Green cleaning chemicals they planned to use were known to cause or have a likelihood of causing a health problem for young children. If one product did, they could select another. In this case, knowledge is indeed power, and making the right choice for your customer’s health will be easier than ever.

One of the more basic obstacles to full ingredient disclosure for some manufacturers has been, very simply, where to list all the ingredients. For instance, some manufacturers understood provisions in the Household Product Labeling and Disclosure Act would require them to list all ingredients on a product label. In one case, a manufacturer said it would have to list more than 1,200 ingredients for a certain product line, making labeling complicated and, for the consumer, a tedious if not numbing experience.

*First reported in “Indoor Air Pollution,” Environment International, Volume 8, Issues 1–6, 1982, pp. 337-341.Made available online in July 2003 as well as other sources.