It’s a lesson that more and more educational institutions are taking to heart: Poor indoor air quality can have a negative impact on student health and learning.

Just ask Victoria Rydberg, an environmental education consultant at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Madison, Wisconsin, who supports the state’s Green and Healthy Schools Program.

“One of the reasons this program exists is because we know where students learn matters,” says Rydberg. “The facility in which they learn impacts their education; therefore, we want to make sure we have green and healthy facilities so that kids are alert, healthy and don’t miss school due to asthma or illness.”

Students aren’t the only beneficiaries of a healthy school environment. Employees that work in healthy schools have higher morale, more balanced workloads, improved safety measures and limited exposure to hazardous chemicals. Moreover, the rewards of operating a healthy school extend beyond campus borders.

“A healthy school will increase its brand recognition and value proposition,” says Solomon Franklin, assistant director of facilities management at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “It presents a professional image of the school and promotes community partnerships.”

As a result, an increasing number of schools and universities are cleaning up, and greening up, their act — and custodial departments are at the forefront of this endeavor.

Safer Alternatives

Rydberg defines a healthy school as one that “reduces environmental impact, improves health and wellness and increases environmental literacy.” Under the banner of health and wellness, she helps schools manage indoor air quality and implement green cleaning practices.

“We look at things like reducing asthma triggers, making sure that dust and dander are properly removed and filters are cleaned,” says Ryberg. “We also look at moisture control and making sure we visually inspect the things we’re cleaning — and then making sure we’re not overusing chemicals for the sake of convenience.” Aggressive chemicals with strong odors are becoming a thing of the past. Today, the trend in schools is toward safer, fragrance-free products that don’t draw attention to their use.

“We want to provide an environment that’s non-distractive and comfortable to our students and teachers,” says Jeff Hawkins, custodial services coordinator at Provo City School District, Provo, Utah. “Some groups equate health and cleanliness with a bleach smell. I preach that the real smell of clean is no smell at all.”

Provo City School District has been using Green Seal–certified cleaners and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-registered disinfectants in all 18 of its schools for the past decade. The district decided to implement a standardized cleaning program in 2010 and adopted chemicals and processes that were safer for janitors, students and teachers.

Indeed, an increasing number of custodial departments are participating in green cleaning programs that use products recognized by third party eco-certification programs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Safer Choice program helps schools find products with safer chemical ingredients. Schools can also use the agency’s IAQ Tools for Schools Action Kit, which offers resources and best practices for starting or maintaining an indoor air quality program.

Engineered water products, such as aqueous ozone, are also becoming prevalent in schools and universities due to their safety, versatility and quality. Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana, started using aqueous ozone technology three years ago to clean and sanitize surfaces in its resident halls.

“We took a look at our chemical line and its impact on staff and students,” says Annmarie Wilson-Futrell, director of building services. “We knew we needed to make a change, and we wanted to move toward a more sustainable product.”

The change to aqueous ozone technology has allowed the department to eliminate a host of chemicals — a benefit to its budget as well as its storage closet. But most importantly, Wilson-Futrell can rest assured that staff and students are not being exposed to potentially harmful chemicals.

Similarly, the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Madison, Wisconsin, began using aqueous ozone in its resident halls about 10 years ago. Today, the technology is used for approximately 80 percent of the residence hall facilities’ cleaning needs, from spotting and extracting carpets to scrubbing floors and cleaning windows.

The university’s switch was prompted by a concern for the environment and custodian health, says Shawna Veselsky, assistant director of housekeeping for resident hall facilities.

“Any type of chemical is a potential hazard if it comes into contact with eyes or skin, or is inadvertently ingested,” says Veselsky. “The transition to aqueous ozone took a lot of those potential hazards out of the equation.”

In conjunction with this technology, Veselsky’s department uses color-coded microfiber clothes — another significant upgrade for schools pursuing healthier facilities. These workhorses simplify the cleaning process, reduce the amount of cleaning product needed and address issues of cross-contamination.

Custodians at Provo City School District ditched string mops and cotton rags in favor of microfiber to clean all horizontal surfaces.

“We’ve been able to reduce the amount of water used, and the microfibers are able to inherently remove dirt,” says Hawkins. “We launder them daily so we avoid cross-contamination and we’re not applying yesterday’s dirt to surfaces.”

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