‘Environmentally friendly’ may not always mean ‘human friendly’
Sustainability has become a key consideration for cleaning products over the past decade. This is addressed broadly in two ways—how the product is made and how it is disposed. However, sustainability rarely deals with the “in-use” phase of a product. Some products that are proposed as more sustainable are typically based on natural ingredients. Yet, natural ingredients such as enzymes or essential oils can often be responsible for allergic reactions, which make these sustainable ingredients a potential detriment to human health when in the environment. For this reason, it is very important to reach a healthy balance between efficacy of cleaning, sustainability and safety of the people in the building.
Natural ingredients such as enzymes or essential oils can often be responsible for allergic reactions, which make these sustainable ingredients a potential detriment to human health when in the environment.
While the ultimate end user may be a consumer (e.g., a student in a school or a patient in a hospital), the use of cleaning products by workers is an essential part of the process as well. Occupational onset asthma is a serious issue for cleaners and exposure to cleaning products has been shown to be a risk factor for work-related asthma. The goal for cleaning product companies therefore is to provide products that are as safe as possible, while retaining the products’ efficacy. Unfortunately, it is often the case that the harsher chemicals can be the most effective, and may be required to be used in certain circumstances. In these cases, appropriate Personal Protective Equipment will remain necessary for the cleaner in order to ensure their protection.
Cleaning products are a very positive and essential part of our modern world. They help to reduce exposure to potentially harmful microorganisms and maintain indoor areas in a comfortable and pleasant environment. Selection of the right cleaning product, particularly for occupants impacted by asthma and allergies, can be challenging, and must strike a balance between efficacy and safety. This selection must take into consideration the ingredients present in the product, the concentration of the ingredients, the efficacy of the product, the recommended usage of the product and the frequency of use.
In order to assist companies with these decisions, a number of certification programs are available to act as a signpost. One of these is the asthma & allergy friendly® certification program. This program is operated by Allergy Standards in collaboration with the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) and Asthma Canada (AC), and is also operated internationally through a global certification mark.
The asthma & allergy friendly® Certification Program certifies cleaning products based on a review of the ingredients present and their potential to be an allergen or irritant; the efficacy of the product in the removal of allergen associated dirt and debris and the mode of operation. Fundamentally, the cleaning product certification is based on the health impact in the indoor environment.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, more than 25 million Americans have asthma, and more than 50 million have experienced various types of allergies. Asthma can be a life threatening condition, with no known cure and can be exacerbated by inhalation-related allergic reactions. In allergic asthma, when an allergen enters the body, the immune system overreacts and the muscles around the airways tighten. The airways then become inflamed and are eventually flooded with thick mucus while breathing becomes very difficult.
Cleaning Is Essential
Allergic reactions can result from exposure to triggers such as dust, pollen, dust mites, cockroach particles and animal dander. A common source of all these allergens is the indoor environment. People can spend in excess of 90% of their time indoors and as such can suffer from chronic exposure to these allergens. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), a key management tool for those impacted by asthma and allergies is trigger avoidance and environmental control.
Cleaning is therefore an essential part of protecting people’s health from these triggers.
Yet, if only it were that simple! While cleaning products can improve indoor air quality through the removal of microorganisms, dust and associated allergens, they can also introduce ingredients from the product into the indoor air environment that may be harmful as well.
Some fragrances and Volatile Organic Compounds (solvents) used in cleaning products can irritate the airways and cause breathing difficulties, potentially leading to asthma attacks. In general, these may not cause significant challenges for the domestic user, but occupational exposure to these compounds may necessitate the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for workers.
Some preservatives may cause reactions in sensitive individuals, so care must be taken in product selection. Manufacturers include preservatives in cleaning products to prevent decay and spoilage of a product, since cleaning products are expected to have a long shelf life. For example, methylisothiazolinone (MI) is part of a chemical family of preservatives that is used in cleaning products, and it was named ‘Contact Allergen of the Year 2013’ by the American Contact Dermatitis Society.
A Sustainable Balance
Sustainability is a fundamental ethos to ensure the future of the planet. All United Nations Member States have adopted the “The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” which places sustainability at the heart of all development internationally. The cleaning products sector therefore has a responsibility to deliver sustainable products, and consumers are encouraged to choose these more sustainable options.
‘Environmentally friendly’ does not always mean ‘human-friendly,’ and products should be assessed carefully to ensure that they are as equally safe for the environment as they are for people.
Yet, the selection of these sustainable options needs to be approached carefully. ‘Environmentally friendly’ does not always mean ‘human-friendly,’ and products should be assessed carefully to ensure that they are as equally safe for the environment as they are for people. The most successful cleaning products now and into the future will be those that address occupant health and environmental impact simultaneously.
By Dr. Tim Yeomans, Centre Manager, Shannon Applied Biotechnology Centre