When selecting green general purpose and carpet cleaning chemicals, we need to look for products that minimize the risk for negative health impacts on our cleaning personnel and building occupants, while simultaneously minimizing environmental impact. Fortunately, most of this work has been done for us, and we can look to certifications from Green Seal, EcoLogo or the EPA’s Design for the Environment (DfE) Formulator Partnership to help guide our purchasing decisions.

The cleaning industry uses six billion pounds of cleaning chemicals annually. If we also consider the raw materials and processes used to produce them, we can reasonably increase this number by a factor of 10 — resulting in 60 billion pounds. Helping to ensure that this huge amount of material is purchased and used in an environmentally sound manner can have a drastically positive effect on the health of the planet, your staff and your buildings’ occupants.

While there are no such things as “zero risk” chemicals, there are elements to look for when making your purchasing decisions. Using certified products will help assure the quality and performance of the product is on the same level as those competing products at a similar price. As with all chemicals, we should look for products with low volatile organic compound (VOC) content, reduced levels of fragrances and those made from renewable resources. Choose water-based over solvent-based products, and those that can be used with cold water — these products have huge environmental savings by reducing the energy associated with heating water.

To further minimize risk, always avoid products that have the potential to expose your staff or building occupants to harmful chemicals, such as substances classified as known human carcinogens or reproductive toxicants, and ozone-depleting compounds.

For example, many traditional cleaning chemicals contain a “butyl cleaner” (2-butoxyethanol) — a very effective cleaner, but also a suspected developmental, endocrine and reproductive toxicant as it passes through the skin and enters the body. Also, many detergent-based cleaners contain nonylphenol ethoxylate surfactants. These surfactants are suspected to be endocrine disruptors that can cause serious problems including diabetes, reproductive disorders and cancer. These traditional products also emit VOCs into the air, posing a significant danger to our respiratory systems. Corrosive or strongly irritating substances can be reduced by moderating pH (look for products with a pH closer to 7 as opposed to extreme pH close to 0 or 14).

Green products also move us away from the traditional chemicals that are derived from petroleum. We all are quite knowledgeable about the environmental impact of reducing our consumption of this non-renewable, valuable resource.

As always when shopping for green products, concentrated versions of products are best for a number of reasons when compared to ready-to-use competitors. Portion-control systems reduce potential harm to staff and occupants by isolating the user from the chemicals. They also reduce environmental impact by reducing the amount of packaging materials used, not to mention the transportation and disposal impacts of the product. In the end, concentrated chemicals will save you money — and that is always a good thing.

Stephen Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group and executive director of the Green Cleaning Network. Ashkin is speaking at ISSA/INTERCLEAN® in Chicago on Tuesday, October 6. His two presentations, “The Green Cleaning Update” and “Are You A Sustainable Company?” are sponsored by Contracting Profits.