Gary Walker, owner of Magic Touch Cleaning in Lee’s Summit, Mo., recalls the day nine years ago when he and his wife and co-owner, Trish, decided it was time to switch to green chemicals that emit lower volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

That day, a female employee with known respiratory issues came into his office and informed him she coughed every time she used a specific product. She sprayed it into the air and immediately began coughing. Walker did, too.

Since switching to low-VOC cleaners, Walker has seen reduced absenteeism and greater productivity among janitorial workers.

“It was an expensive change,” he admits. “But I have one couple who works for me who has missed less than a week of work in nine years.”

Walker’s story may be largely anecdotal, but some studies support his findings.

The Harvard Green Campus Initiative found nearly 13 percent of all work-related asthma cases could be attributed to harmful VOCs in the workplace.

A study from Air Quality Sciences, a product-testing firm based in Atlanta, revealed VOCs in building air within two hours of cleaning can be up to 36 times higher than what is considered acceptable.

Allen Rathey, president of the Healthy House Institute in Boise, Idaho, points out volatile organic compounds cannot be blamed for every case of worker absenteeism and productivity.

“But anything to do with respiratory illness will be impacted by VOCs, so if you can reduce the bad VOCs, you’re going to prevent respiratory problems,” Rathey says.

There have only been a few formal studies, and more research is needed. According to Rathey, ISSA is working to connect the dots between better cleaning, healthier cleaning and the impact on human health.  

“A lot of the conclusions we have are anecdotal,” he says. “There isn’t a lot of hard data. But we have good evidence that this is happening and what we can do right now is connect the dots between better cleaning and the dollars saved by reducing absenteeism and improving worker performance.”

Volatile organic compounds can have acute and long-term affects on human health.

Cleaning personnel don gloves and safety glasses to protect their skin and eyes from harsh cleaning products but Dave Thompson, president of the Rolla, Mo.-based Green Clean Institute, wants to know what do they do to protect their lungs and bloodstream.

“We need to reduce the immediate impact of these products. If workers have an immediate reaction they need to do something — whether it’s [to] a baseboard cleaner, a floor stripper or a glass cleaner,” he says. “The question isn’t eliminating all VOCs, it’s eliminating toxic or harmful ones.”

As the impacts of lowering harmful VOCs in indoor environments becomes more widely known, it will become increasingly important for jan/san distributors to impart this knowledge to their customers, says Thompson. He says distributor reps will break down into two groups: order-takers, who take orders for products with low volatile organic compounds and have no idea what they are selling, and sales consultants, who will consult with clients on how to reduce exposures to harmful VOCs through low- or no-VOC cleaning products and better cleaning practices.
“When it comes to indoor air quality, VOCs, exposure and health risks, it’s about people, not products,” says Thompson. “You have to make it personal and educate people on how to reduce their exposure to harmful VOCs.”

Many professional cleaners suffer the affects of occupational-related asthma, Walker and Thompson being among them.

“I’m particularly concerned about the exposure to cleaning professionals because their exposure is significantly higher than building occupants,” says Steve Ashkin, president of The Ashkin Group, Bloomington, Ill. “They work with these products eight hours a day, often in confined spaces where ventilation units are turned off or turned down.”
Exposure takes its toll over time, adds Thompson, who says he spends thousands on asthma medications annually.

“At some point your body can’t handle it,” he says. “We have got to achieve adequate and sustainable levels of VOCs.”

Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis. She is a frequent contributor to Sanitary Maintenance.