IAQ: Cleaning Boosts Student Health And Productivity
Just as Barbara Mandrell once crooned she was country when country wasn't cool, schools in Beaver Falls, Pa., went green before anyone really knew what green was.
Six years ago the Blackhawk School District began cleaning Blackhawk Intermediate School's 99,000 square feet with environmentally preferred chemicals and processes. Today, every one of the district's five school buildings follows these same practices.
The district began green cleaning to improve the health and safety of custodians, faculty and students. The move accomplished all of their goals.
"It's been a win-win all around," says Blackhawk Intermediate School's Head Custodian Andi Lee-Marnicio.
The health benefits of cleaning this way become most evident around cold and flu season, with the district seeing less absenteeism among students, faculty and custodians. In fact, the district fared extremely well as schools across the country faced off against the H1N1 virus.
"When neighboring schools reported very large numbers of absenteeism among students and staff, we did not see it here," Lee-Marnicio says. "It was just business as usual."
Not only were infections down, but the push towards green improved the facility environment on a consistent basis.
While the district does not regularly test indoor air quality (IAQ), Lee-Marnicio cites evidence that it has indeed improved. Custodians change ventilation air filters every six weeks. She describes the filters as being "horrible" when custodians switched them years ago. Today, she says, some filters still have life left in them when they're replaced.
Complaints surrounding chemical smells also dropped since the program began.
"When we used certain products, we heard complaints about the smell," says Lee-Marnicio. "I rarely get those complaints anymore."
Likewise, custodians are finding less dust resting on countertops and shelves.
"Even the hallways stay much cleaner, now that we vacuum them instead of dust mopping," she says. "Green cleaning has made a big difference."
Good Health = Better Learning
Blackhawk School District's findings are not unusual. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), taking steps to improve school IAQ is critical to bettering student health and academic performance.
"Substandard environmental conditions in schools, such as insufficient cleaning or inadequate ventilation, can cause serious health problems for children," says Dave Ryan, EPA spokesman. "Evidence continues to mount demonstrating that IAQ directly impacts academic performance and health."
Ryan notes evidence demonstrating the relationship between IAQ and human performance and productivity has become more robust. Studies find boosting IAQ improves the performance of mental tasks, such as improved concentration and recall in both adults and children, according to the EPA report "How does indoor air quality impact student health and academic performance?" Studies also support a direct correlation between attendance and increased maintenance.
"There is a lot of data indicating that improved IAQ reduces incidences of asthma and studies showing that poorly kept carpeting decreases mental capacity," says Mark Bishop, deputy director of the Healthy Schools Campaign. "It is common sense that healthier air equals a more successful student."
The EPA supports these findings in a recent Web post reviewing scientific evidence linking IAQ to better health. The post says: "... insufficient cleaning or excessive use of cleaning chemicals, and other maintenance issues, can trigger a host of health problems — including asthma and allergies — that increase absenteeism and reduce academic performance."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concurs, citing asthma as one of the leading causes of student absenteeism. Thus, reducing the incidence of exposures known to trigger asthma should boost student attendance.
It's The Law
As studies identify the benefits of improving IAQ, an increasing number of states are passing green cleaning legislation for schools. To date, 11 states across the U.S. already require or encourage the use of environmentally preferred cleaning products in schools, says Bishop.
At least 17 states have also passed legislation mandating green cleaning practices in all government buildings. And legislators in other states, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, Washington and Oregon, will soon vote on pending green cleaning legislation.
As these laws grow in number, Bishop predicts, "One of these days we'll stop calling it green cleaning and just call it cleaning because that's just the way it's done."
To aid school cleaning staffs in implementing green cleaning practices, the EPA recently revised its "IAQ Tools for Schools Action Kit," which has already been implemented in hundreds of schools across the country, says Ryan.
This type of information — as well as the Healthy Schools Campaign's "Quick and Easy Guide to Green Cleaning in Schools" and Steve Ashkin and David Holly's book "Green Cleaning for Dummies" — helps schools transition to green cleaning processes. It also helps address any misinformation that exists about the efficiency of sustainable chemicals and the costs associated with these programs.
In fact, while working to promote healthy environments, the Healthy Schools Campaign spoke with leaders of the green cleaning movement and saw several themes emerge. While these professionals cited improved occupant health as the primary reason for their switch to green cleaning, they also reported their programs were both "cost effective and more efficient," says Bishop.
"That's a powerful message," he says. "Ten years ago these products were more expensive and they were not as effective as traditional cleaners. As the market has shifted, these products have become cost competitive and just as effective as traditional cleaning products."
Marc Cizewski, director of facilities for La Porte Community School Corporation in La Porte, Ind., says the district has spent less on cleaning products since it adopted green cleaning practices in its 11 schools just one year ago.
"We were able to reduce the number of chemicals we used," he says. "When you look at a true cost analysis, you need to compare more than the cost of Product A against Product B."
Green cleaning products come in concentrated forms so that one product can be used in different dilutions for several applications.
Put simply, "If you can get 100 buckets out of a bottle as opposed to 25, it's going to be cost effective, even if the green product costs more," says Lee-Marnicio. "And, if you used to have 10 chemicals sitting on a shelf, and now you have three that can do everything, it's going to cost less."
The idea that these products are ineffective is also a fallacy, says Cizewski. With proper custodial education and training, the products work exactly as intended.
Improper use is likely behind most claims of ineffectiveness, stresses Lee-Marnicio. Because the chemicals are less caustic, they require dwell time to work.
"You have to let the chemicals do the work for you, instead of throwing cleaner down then wiping it away," she says. "Custodians need to let chemicals sit there for a few minutes, then come back and let the microfiber cloths do the work as they wipe it away. These products will do the job, when used as intended."
Even with guides to help, there may be missteps along the way. Here's where connecting with custodial staffs at the green cleaning forefront may help.
Blackhawk Intermediate School piloted the district's program. However, La Porte changed every school at the same time. Cizewski says if he could do it over again, he would begin with a single school.
"I strongly recommend implementing a plan at one or two schools first," he says. "I went from zero to 100 percent, and it made the transition a little more difficult."
Pilot programs help custodial managers introduce new chemicals and equipment to custodians at a slower pace, says Lee-Marnicio, an important fact among seasoned professionals who may resist change.
"It's hard to change them," she says. "You need to start slowly and get everyone on board first."
She advises changing chemicals, tools and processes one at a time.
"Changing everything at one time is like learning a new language in three days," she says. "You have to start slow and introduce a few things at a time for it to be successful."
It also helps to engage custodians in the decision-making and planning process, she says.
"Don't just say these are the chemicals you will use. Here is the dispenser you will use. End of conversation," says Lee-Marnicio. "If they have a say on things, it's easier to bring them on board."
Work closely with administration and school board officials to promote the health benefits behind the change, Cizewski adds. Buy-in comes in knowing what these changes mean to them.
Administration and school board officials need to know that the switch to greener products and practices can improve the indoor air quality and the health of all building occupants, he says. To communicate his message effectively, Cizewski holds informal meetings and sends regular e-mail updates to keep everyone informed.
Going green is not only "cool" but a no-brainer. A school's main goal is to educate the students who come there every day to learn. This becomes easier when the air is clean and students and faculty are healthier and more productive as a result.
Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis.
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