Asthma is a serious problem in educational facilities, and reducing it is a way for jan/san distributors to make a big difference. Asthma is the leading chronic illness causing student absenteeism in K-12 schools; one out of every 10 school-age children has asthma, accounting for 13 million to 14 million missed school days per year. Since many of the environmental agents that trigger asthma are also linked to other illnesses, reducing these triggers can reduce the incidence of other ailments including allergies.

Schools are typically funded based on attendance, so reducing asthma and related maladies will improve attendance and associated school budgets, making savvy distributors part of a vital proposition: creating healthier schools doesn't cost, it pays.

What Causes Asthma?

The causes of asthma are complex and involve factors including genetics, diet, stress and environmental health. While distributors can't impact genetics, diet or the stresses placed on children, they can minimize potential asthma triggers related to cleaning at schools and surrounding environments.

Although triggers that cause an asthma episode vary from person to person, there are several common triggers associated with schools: allergens and irritants.

Allergen triggers include pollen, animal dander, dust mites, cockroaches and molds. Irritants, on the other hand, are disinfectants, pesticides, fragrances or odors from cleaning products, and chalk dust.

There are three main ways to reduce asthma triggers and improve indoor air quality (IAQ). The first, source capture, stops contaminants or pollutants from spreading. Second, ventilation brings fresh air in to dilute pollutants and triggers. Finally, air cleaning removes airborne matter. Of the three, source capture (i.e. prevention) with the right products is the most important and effective method.

Help With Product Selection

Distributors can promote products that truly clean — that is, methods that remove contaminants or pollutants or stop them at the source rather than add them to the environment or redistribute them.

Floor mats provide passive cleaning or source capture; the more matting the better. Mats remove particles (outdoor pesticides, allergens, heavy metals) from shoes before dusts can enter the building and become airborne. Mats should be placed outside and inside — bi-level, scraper-type outside and absorbent, drying-type inside — entranceways, and be changed or cleaned frequently.

However, mats can't do it all. Encourage customers to keep floors clean — both carpet and hard surfaces. Carpet holds dust better than hard floors and does not release it until the fibrous "sink" becomes full. Contrary to popular misconception, when it comes to allergies and asthma, carpet is not the problem. Lack of proper cleaning of carpet is. Help clients schedule carpet vacuuming at regular and frequent intervals, going slow and repeating passes to extract the most dust (more passes equals more dust removed, up to 80 percent).

Choose vacuums that remove and capture the most dust. Both properly-filtered HEPA vacuums and non-HEPA models can be effective because particulate capture has more to do with the way vacuums are designed and filters are configured than with any particular or single filter technology. The Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) provides good guidance on vacuums that clean well while keeping dust out of the air.

Choose high quality filters for vacuums. In some cases, OEM filters are better than generics because of enhanced media quality that traps more dust while maintaining airflow longer. If in doubt, ask for test data and look for high efficiencies of removal at small particle sizes (e.g., 99 percent at .3 micron) and sustained airflow rates.

Provide a vacuum maintenance log for customers and encourage frequent filter changes and vacuum inspections. Great vacuums become poor ones if not maintained well. Filters are relatively inexpensive, while lung damage, other health impairments and labor to remove resettled dust are not.

Hard floors need even more frequent cleaning because dust on smooth surfaces becomes airborne more easily; vacuuming with a brush attachment where practical is preferable to dust mopping since it removes more soil.

Both floors need wet cleaning regularly as well; clean flooring attracts, holds and releases less dust. Carpets should be extracted to remove sticky soils and residues. Janitors should use autoscrubbers on hard floors that can accommodate it, since it applies only clean solution, scrubs and removes or vacuums off dirty solution.

Janitors can also use vacuums to remove dust from above-floor surfaces such as cubicle walls. Alternately, recommend microfiber or other retentive technologies (disposable non-microfiber dusters may also provide good retention) to capture and remove particles. Even a damp cotton cloth can be a good choice since it will tend to remove and contain dust rather than stir it.

Also, encourage school staff and students to remove clutter from classrooms and other spaces. Clutter provides more surface area, hiding places and distribution points for dust. Eliminating these surfaces will reduce dusting, cleaning labor and overall airborne dust.

Chemical and Non-Chemical Cleaners

According to K.D. Rosenman, MD, Department of Medicine, Michigan State University, "Cleaning products contain a diverse group of chemicals...Their potential to cause or aggravate asthma has recently been recognized."

It makes sense to limit or target the use of products containing ingredients such as bleach, quaternary ammonium compounds or "quats," phthalates, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Consider appropriate alternatives or non-chemical options.

Bronchitis, shortness of breath, coughing and other respiratory problems are linked to regular use of bleach-based and other "irritating" cleaning products.

Phthalate, a common ingredient in product fragrances, ends up in dust that school children inhale. According to Science News magazine: "...children exposed to...dust with the greatest concentrations of di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) were 2.9 times as likely to have asthma as were children exposed to the lowest concentrations of that phthalate."

Use of quats — compounds in floor cleaners and disinfecting products — may also promote asthma. Volatile ingredients in foodservice or kitchen cleaning formulas, furniture polishes and other cleaners can irritate mucous membranes and contribute to respiratory issues.

Avoiding products containing these ingredients makes sense when non-asthma-inducing alternatives are available. Good ventilation is also vital when products containing asthma triggers are used.

Some schools are having success with water-only cleaning, including microfiber cloths and tap water for hard surfaces; autoscrubbers using just tap water or electrically-activated water; electrically-activated water for general-purpose cleaning and sanitizing; and steam vapor units for cleaning and disinfecting.

Measuring IAQ

Conducting IAQ walkthroughs with customers can help identify indoor air quality problems and sources, and open up solution-driven sales opportunities. At a minimum, look in cleaning closets for asthma promoting products and suggest replacements. Check vacuum cleaners and filters for proper equipment selection and maintenance, and provide maintenance logs and reminder systems to promote clean filters and regular cleaning. Offer training on better methods to remove soil and prevent airborne matter; how one cleans is often as important as what one cleans with.

Particle counters are useful to assess the number of airborne particles and to check vacuum cleaners for dust retention. As a rule of thumb, the number of very fine particles indoors should be half of the count outdoors. In addition, particle counters can help distributors identify sources of particles and to troubleshoot solutions. Vacuum cleaner exhaust can be measured to determine how many particles and what sizes are being released, which is an indication of the effectiveness of filters and overall dust containment.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) meters are increasingly being used to detect the CO2 exhaled by students in classrooms to assess overall indoor air quality, especially as it relates to the buildup of potential "triggers."

Carbon dioxide is considered a surrogate for other airborne gases and its buildup often indicates poor ventilation and the potential concentration of other airborne contaminants (VOCs, etc.). If distributors choose to measure carbon dioxide with a portable meter, manufacturers of these devices provide training and guidance on interpreting results. Having this information will enable a dialogue with other school maintenance personnel such as those responsible for HVAC systems.

Relative humidity and moisture meters are useful for determining conditions favorable for mold growth. Relative humidity meters measure the moisture content of the air, whereas pad or pin-type moisture meters provide a measurement of moisture within materials. Finding and eliminating unwanted sources of moisture will reduce potential for mold growth, which exposure to can trigger asthmatic episodes.

Helping customers select and maintain the appropriate cleaning products can help improve schools' IAQ and reduce the number of asthma-related absences. After this initial product assessment, follow up with IAQ measurements to ensure proper cleaning continues to take place.

Allen Rathey is president of The Healthy Facilities Institute, a Boise-Idaho based organization established to provide data for creating and maintaining clean, healthy indoor environments. For more information, visit