From aggravating allergies to triggering asthma attacks, cleaning products can negatively impact building occupants. Schools, hospitals and assisted living facilities house some of the most vulnerable people when it comes to cleaning chemicals that cause adverse reactions. But even office buildings aren't immune to the ill effects of potent cleaners on pregnant employees, workers undergoing chemotherapy, or people suffering from allergies.

When choosing cleaning products that address the needs of sensitive occupants, first understand who occupies the building, says Vince Fagan, president and owner of Fagan Solutions, a Frankfurt, Ill.-based LEED-certified consulting company.

"Figure out what percentage of those people is vulnerable," he says. "Then focus on those folks, and use the right products to minimize exposure to them."

Green And Beyond

The growing acceptance of green chemicals is a breath of fresh air — literally — for many occupants prone to the health hazards associated with inhaling volatile organic compounds (VOCs). More distributors recommend that businesses switch to green chemicals that are certified by a third party, such as Green Seal or EcoLogo, or a partner of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Design for the Environment (DfE) program.

Schoolchildren in particular are benefiting from green cleaning programs. Teresa Farmer, sustainability consultant for Kelsan Inc., Knoxville, Tenn., works with several school systems to help customers set up a green cleaning program that focuses on children's health.

"The number of students with asthma is on the rise," she says. "If custodians are using products that have heavy odors, they can trigger asthma attacks in children."

Under the umbrella of green cleaners, oxygen-based and biobased products, are gaining popularity and are touted as safe for use around ultra-sensitive occupants.

Brad Gruber, president of Uneeda Enterprises, Garden City, N.Y., sells a hydrogen peroxide-based cleaner that he says is so safe you can drink it — and in fact he has during demonstrations. The sanitizer/virucide has a five minute dwell time and kills 99.99 percent of common germs.

"Whenever we come into a situation where people tell us it's a sensitive area and we have people who are pregnant or have allergies, this is the product I recommend," says Gruber.

By definition biobased products are biodegradable and made partially or wholly from plant sources including soy, corn, coconut, parsley, lavender or citrus. A variety of products are available to clean, disinfect or even degrease surfaces. Their low levels of VOCs are a plus for sensitive occupants, who often react negatively to a product's fumes, says Julie Fishman, president of Starline Supply Co., Oakland, Calif.

A less common but safe and effective alternative for cleaning around people that have respiratory problems or other medical concerns is ionized water. An ionizer electrically charges tap water with ozone, converting it into an efficient cleaner and disinfectant. Starline Supply sells an ionized cleaner to schools and hotels.

"It's a great choice in situations where someone is sensitive to any kind of cleaning material because it will kill 99.9 percent of bacteria," says Fishman.

Decoding Disinfectants

Disinfectants also give rise to misconceptions — one of the most common being that they have to be strong in order to work. But products can be unscented or lightly scented, which is preferable for disinfecting around sensitive occupants. Fishman recommends residual disinfectants for these populations because they reduce exposure to the product.

"Residual disinfectant is expensive, but you can spray it on high-touch surfaces, and it will disinfect for 24 hours, so you don't have to keep applying it on the surface over and over again," she says.

To help identify green and safer disinfectants, the EPA launched two pilot programs in December 2009 that allow qualified disinfectants and sanitizers to bear the DfE logo or let manufacturers make approved factual claims about their products, such as being scent-free or dye-free.

When it comes to disinfecting around sensitive people, Farmer suggests that janitors avoid spraying the product directly on the surface to be cleaned.

"We recommend custodians put the disinfectant on their cloth, damp-wipe the surface, and let it air dry," she says. "A lot of times they spray disinfectant on [a surface] and wipe it off. When you do that you get the [kickback], and you breathe it in."

So how often should janitors apply disinfectant? It depends on the type of building and its occupants, distributors say. High-traffic areas, such as restrooms, may need to be disinfected several times a day, while certain areas of hospitals may require hourly disinfecting.

When Fagan asks school custodians how many times they disinfect students' desks, he winces at the reply.

"They say, 'We do that every summer.' Well, guess what: Those students are at their desks every day. It's so important that we're protecting those vulnerable populations, but also that we're protecting the staff that's doing the work," he says.

Fagan promotes the 90/10 rule for cleaning and disinfecting — not just in facilities with vulnerable occupants but in all buildings.

"You don't need to disinfect everything," he says, "only high-touch areas. So 90 percent of surfaces only need to be cleaned, and 10 percent of surfaces need to be disinfected."

In all facilities door knobs, hand rails and elevator buttons are among the most commonly touched surfaces, also known as fomites. However, each particular type of facility will have additional fomites unique to them. In schools these include student and teacher desks, cafeteria tables and trays, computer keyboards and water fountains. In hospitals these areas are bed rails, bed curtains and over-bed tables. Finally, in office buildings, janitors should give extra attention to phones, desktops, and computer keyboards and mice.

Farmer encourages custodians to incorporate disinfecting these touchpoints into their regular cleaning routine.

"We tell customers if custodians are walking through an area doing their cleaning, especially during the day when occupants are in the building, have that cloth out and wipe hand rails and doorknobs periodically throughout the day," says Farmer. "You're walking by them anyway."

Distributors should play an active role in educating customers and helping them replace harsh chemicals with environmentally friendly alternatives — not just for the sake of sensitive occupants but for the health and safety of everyone in the building, including janitors.

"When you protect vulnerable populations, school absenteeism goes down and potentially test scores go up," says Fagan. "For office workers, productivity goes up. In hospitals, patients feel better and you reduce the risk of nosocomial (hospital acquired) infections."

Kassandra Kania is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.