Other than the intoxicating smell of new text books and notebooks, the familiar scents of back-to-school may be changing. Ammonia-scented hallways, newly sealed and fuming gym floors, odorously painted classrooms as well as lawns with the subtle scents of pesticide treatments, may be a thing of the past.
In today’s more environmentally conscious world, public and private schools are rethinking how they maintain their buildings. Reducing toxic chemicals in schools – as in our homes — is not only good for the environment, but for those who use these buildings.
In Maryland’s Montgomery County outside of Washington D.C., the public schools have long taken a pro-active approach in using non-toxic cleaners.
“We want our buildings to be clean and at the same time healthy for our students, faculty and the person doing the cleaning,” says Larry Hurd, building services trainer for the school district.
Ten years ago, the district, which oversees 200 schools, changed from an oil-based sealer for their wood gym floors to a water-based sealer. It works well, says Mr. Hurd, and toxins are no longer an issue. “The oil-based sealer was bad for the students and other visitors to our schools, but it was real, real bad for the person applying the sealer.” That person was exposed to the sealer fumes for as much as four hours.
Another major change in Montgomery County involved switching to a single less-toxic cleaner that replaced seven conventional cleaners that had been used in the schools — one for windows, another for floors, another for restrooms and so on. Starting about three years ago, the school system began using the green cleaner Alpha HP, made by Johnson Diversity, for all their cleaning uses, Hurd said.
The wood floors throughout the district are no longer stripped with caustic chemical strippers. Instead they are top-scrubbed with water and Alpha PH, which removes the two top coats, says Hurd, and involves less time and no toxins.
Alpha HP, a hydrogen peroxide-based cleaner, has been certified by Green Seal, a nonprofit company that promotes products that don’t harm the environment. Hydrogen Peroxide cleaners break down in the environment into basic elements faster and more completely than many other chemicals, such as ammonia or chlorine bleach, used in conventional cleaners.
More and more schools are getting on board with environmentally safe cleaning products, says a Green Seal spokesperson. In fact, schools across the entire state of New York is now going with Green Seal-approved cleaning solutions, and in May the state of Illinois adopted a similar green cleaning program, the Green Clean Schools Act.
In addition to being safe, Hurd points out that the Montgomery County School District saves on water since Alpha HP uses a measured dispenser system. Depending on the job, the Alpha HP powder is measured out and then mixed with just the right amount of water. And the one quart Alpha HP container is also recyclable.
“We’re really proud of our program,” says Hurd. “All our custodians are put through basic training. We take a systematic team approach to cleaning in which we clean all year long, looking for healthy ways to clean around the clock. We detail one quarter of our buildings every day – walls, floors, lights — so by the end of the week, everything has been thoroughly cleaned.” Years ago, Hurd notes, schools spent the summer cleaning to get ready for fall. But with the buildings being used all year long, “you can’t wait till summer to clean.”
No Kids Were Harmed During This Cleaning
At the Northwest School in Seattle, Washington, the environment is one of the three legs on which the school is founded, notes science teacher and environmental program director Herb Bergamini. The private school (pictured at top) was founded in 1980 and one of its key tenets, Bergamini says, is that “the students be invested in taking care of their space, their environment from the get-go.” Taking care of their environment at a young age, he says, will help them take care of it once they enter the “real world.”
Recycling, reducing carbon emissions and composting are not all these kids do. They actually are responsible for keeping their school clean. Scraping gum from the desks, cleaning toilets, vacuuming, maintaining wood floors are part of their day. Led by a senior, each student group is made up of all grades, sixth through 11th, as well as a faculty member who assists the seniors with leadership skills. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, classes stop at 9:40 a.m. and for the next 10 minutes, each team does their assignment. There is also a janitor who oversees the restrooms and dining rooms.
Besides learning responsibility, the students realize that their actions – such as sticking gum under a desk or leaving a half-filled recycled bottle in a bin – have an effect on their fellow students.
In the last year, says Bergamini, “we have switched to the ‘Simple Green’ line of products. We also use Bon Ami scouring powder and Murphy’s oil soap for the wood floors. Because our building is more than 100 years old, we have a lot a wood.” Simple Green cleaners are non-toxic and biodegradeable and meet Green Seal’s environmental standards. The non-toxic Bon Ami , Bergamini points out, has no dye, chlorine or perfume and is safe for the environment.
In the Irving Independent School District, composed of 35 schools and located in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, crews use another Green Seal-approved cleaning product called Stride Citrus Neutral Cleaner. In addition, Irving schools spokesman Tony Thetford says the school district is in the process of taking competitive bids on several green cleaners in hopes of adopting them. “We have gone out for bid on the Aquaria Floor Finish, Freedom Floor Stripper, Alpha-HP Multi-Surface Cleaner, and Glance NA Glass Cleaner that are Green-Seal certified. These products will be added to our inventory as soon as possible,” Thetford said.
Beginning with all 20 elementary schools, custodians are using new Pro-Team Super Coach HEPA Vacuums with HEPA filters that remove nearly 100 percent of dirt and allergens from floors and surfaces, Thetford says.
Leslie Reichert, aka the Cleaning Coach, advises homeowners and cleaning professionals on green methods of cleaning. But her advice can also be applied to schools. In fact, she recently assisted the Northbridge High School in the Worcester area of Massachusetts by suggesting they use microfiber cloths, one of the mainstays of her cleaning program.
“The new design of the school was nearly all glass. The janitors were spending a lot of time spraying the class with ammonia-based cleaners. I gave them the blue micro-fiber cloths which they just spray with water. No chemicals are involved. It saves on paper towels and they’re not filling up the students and janitors’ lungs with chemicals,” Reichert said.
Reichert also recommends mops that come with removable and washable microfiber pads or central vacuum systems.
Keeping Critters Out
Pesticide maintenance is another issue that affects the environment. The Northwest School in Seattle recently completed a major remodeling, says Bergamini. Although the Seattle area is probably not a mecca for critters, he says they made sure they removed all points of entries.
In warmer climates, such as Texas, keeping the schools free of bugs is more of an issue and may require some form of pesticide. Andy Garza, the Regulatory Compliance and Training Coordinator at Irving ISD, says Irving “has implemented a pro-active Integrated Pest Management approach. We are conducting structural and landscaping inspections to identify any repairs that need to be completed to prevent pest ingress. We are using monitors to identify pest activity before it becomes a problem. Finally, we use safe, non-chemical control methods (glue boards, light traps, etc.).”
The EPA doesn’t rule out the use of pesticides, stating that they are “powerful tools for controlling pests.” But they advise that they be used judiciously since children tend to be more sensitive to these chemicals than adults – especially young kids who may be crawling or putting their hands in their mouths. Specifically, the EPA suggests that schools use integrated pest management (IPM). As stated in their website: “IPM is a safer and usually less costly option for effective pest management in a school community. A school IPM program uses common sense strategies to reduce sources of food, water and shelter for pests…and takes advantage of all pest management strategies, including the judicious and careful use of pesticides when necessary.”
Among the common sense strategies suggested by the EPA:
- Make sure the problem or pest is identified before taking action.
- Vegetation, shrubs and wood mulch should be kept at least one foot away from structures.
- Cracks and crevices in walls, floors and pavement are either sealed or eliminated.
- Lockers and desks are emptied and thoroughly cleaned at least twice yearly.
- Food-contaminated dishes, utensils, surfaces are cleaned by the end of each day.
- Garbage cans and dumpsters are cleaned regularly.
- Litter is collected and disposed of properly at least once a week.
- Fertilizers should be applied several times (e.g.,spring, summer, fall) during the year, rather than one heavy application. (And, we might add, there are organic fertilizers that help build the soil and don’t produce nitrogen-heavy runoff.)
- If pesticides are necessary, use spot treatments rather than area-wide applications. (See our interview and video with Michael Bohdan of The Pest Shop in Plano for more ideas on organic pest control.)
In Irving, Garza says the key to using chemicals is in the application. “What makes a chemical safe,” he says, “is the person applying it and the way in which the chemical is applied. The IISD strictly enforces appropriate application times and waiting the proper amount of time necessary for safe reentry.”
More and more, environmentally clean schools are becoming the standard. As Montgomery County’s Larry Hurd says “Kids and staff are happier when their school is clean. When the air is good, you feel better. It’s a better experience for everyone.”
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