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“You need to know what the term means before you come in front of a customer and say ‘I’m here to reduce VOCs in your cleaning products,’ ” says Dave Thompson, president of the Rolla, Mo.-based Green Clean Institute.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines VOCs as any compound of carbon (excluding carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, carbonic acid, metallic carbides or carbonates, and ammonium carbonate) that participates in atmospheric photochemical reactions.
Simply put, VOCs are chemicals that enter the air as gases from some solids or liquids. An onion emits VOCs when you slice it. A man releases VOCs when he sweats. But these VOCs are not harmful to human health. However, the VOCs in cleaning chemicals can be, especially among those using ingredients such as quaternary ammonium compounds, phthalates or butyl.
It’s relatively easy to identify which cleaners release harmful VOCs, according to Thompson.
“If the nose smells it and your body has a reaction to it, it has a VOC the body is reacting to. If it foams, fizzes, bubbles, there is a chemical reaction occurring that emits harmful VOCs,” he says.
The key to low-VOC cleaning product sales is to know the customer and do a little probing in the sales process, says Steve Ashkin, president of The Ashkin Group, Bloomington, Ill.
Customers may be put off by the sales rep who comes in and says they’re there to lower the VOCs in cleaning products, Ashkin says. But they will likely be receptive to the consultant who is proactive in educating customers about VOCs while also touting product effectiveness and other selling points.
From there, distributors can ask questions like: Do you have workers with asthma? Do you have chemically sensitive employees? Do occupants in the buildings you clean complain about fragrances? Do you have customers who serve sensitive populations such as children, the elderly or the sick?
These questions open the door for discussions about how lower VOC cleaning products can impact workers and facility occupants. For instance, says Gary Walker, owner of Magic Touch Cleaning in Lee’s Summit, Mo., distributors might share that studies have shown proper ventilation combined with the use of low-VOC cleaning products have reduced respiratory illnesses among nursing home residents by 70 percent. Proper ventilation and low VOC cleaning products also have been shown to lessen respiratory illness among school children by 40 percent.
“But sometimes green won’t work unless you can show customers the other kind of green,” says Walker, noting it’s important to stress how reducing health-related issues among building occupants and cleaners can impact the bottom line.
“The Department of Energy reports companies spend between $30 billion and $150 billion annually for sick leave, worker performance and health issues,” adds Thompson. “They say we have these issues because of indoor air quality. How can the cleaning industry affect that? It comes back to the cleaning products we use and educating frontline workers so they can protect their own health and those around them.”
Though it shouldn’t be used as a scare tactic, discussions should include the potential liability incurred through using products with high VOCs.
A World Health Organization study revealed that 24 percent of workers perceive there is an indoor air quality problem in their workplace and 20 percent of them believe it hampers their performance.
“At what point is this going to become a lawsuit instead of a perception?” Thompson asks.
As knowledge about the impact of harmful VOCs in indoor environments becomes widely known, it behooves those doing the cleaning and the owners of the buildings being cleaned to use lower VOC products, says Walker.
“If cleaning companies haven’t gone green yet, they may have a serious problem years down the road because of employees being exposed,” he says. “If you continue to expose employees to toxic chemicals, when it is known they are toxic, there will be financial implications in the future.”
Thompson cites mesothelioma as an example of what might happen to tort law as it pertains to VOCs. Mesothelioma is a cancer that exists because of worker exposure to asbestos. What happens when illnesses such as asthma become definitively linked to exposure to cleaning chemicals?
“The more we know about what we are doing, the more likely tort law will come into play,” he says. “At what point will lawyers start making lawsuits?”
Demonstrate Proper Use of Low VOC Cleaning ProductsJust because a sale has been made doesn’t mean distributors should end the interaction there; they need to reach out and educate customers about things like reading Material Safety Data Sheets.
“Read the label. If you can’t pronounce the ingredients, you probably shouldn’t clean with it,” says Walker.
In addition, distributors should be showing customers how to use the products.
“You can have the right cleaners but use them incorrectly. Sometimes the issue is not adding a green product but using the green product in a green way,” Thompson says, noting distributors must identify best practices and teach them to purchasers.
For instance, turning the product to a stream rather than a spray setting reduces VOCs entering the air. Spraying the stream onto a microfiber cloth instead also reduces airborne VOCs.
“I don’t atomize the product so I don’t inhale it,” Thompson says. “If I stream it into the cloth, I don’t have splash back. I have reduced the VOCs going into my body by how I used the product.”
The VOC discussion is important one and one that should work its way into every sales pitch.
“For many product categories today, there are low VOC or no VOC alternatives. It’s not like it was 10 to 15 years ago,” says Ashkin.
For more information on the health benefits of low VOC chemicals, click here.
Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis. She is a frequent contributor to Sanitary Maintenance.