Press & Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, N.Y.), November 27, 2005


Schools to begin using more environmentally safe cleaners

[Rachel's introduction: A new law in New York requires all public schools to begin using 'green' cleaning products by next September. All state agencies and authorities must do the same.]

By George Basler

Lindy Thorn and Dianne Ross are on the front lines of a job that's changing.

Every day, the two women battle dirt, dust and germs as head custodians in the Whitney Point Central School District. They take a lot of satisfaction in keeping the buildings clean.

Starting next September, however, they will face a new regulation in doing their jobs. That's the date a new state law goes into effect requiring schools to begin using environmentally sensitive, or "green," cleaning and maintenance products.

Gov. George E. Pataki signed the bill in August, eight months after he signed an executive order requiring all state agencies and authorities to do the same.

Health and environmental issues drove passage of the new law, said Stephen Boese, state director of the Healthy Schools Network, a non- profit advocacy organization.

"Toxic chemicals in cleaning products have been linked to childhood and adult health problems," Boese said. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, allergic reactions to poor indoor air quality keep 10,000 American children out of school each day.

Even before the new state law, many New York schools have been moving toward using more "green" products, said Fred Koebel, legislative chairman of the New York State Association of Superintendents of School Buildings and Grounds.

Whitney Point, for example, has focused on more environmentally friendly cleaning methods and products for several years, said Edward Maslin, director of buildings and grounds. One step is a dilution- control system at the middle school that allows cleaning and maintenance crews to minimize the amount of cleaning fluids required, and reduce the number of empty plastic containers that go into the garbage.

"I don't think there's a choice. We have to do something to protect the environment," Maslin said.

Some concerns

Both Thorn and Ross support the move to environmentally sensitive cleaning products and the new state law. Improving the air quality in schools is important, they said. But they also have some concerns. Their main question is whether "green" products will be as effective as conventional products in doing the tough job of cleaning buildings.

The concern is shared by some Southern Tier buildings and grounds officials, who note testing is incomplete on the effectiveness of "green" products.

"Before we start using something, we want to make sure it works," said Dick Bierl, director of facilities services for the Newark Valley Central School District.

The situation remains unclear because New York is still working on the definition of environmentally sensitive products, and a lot of different opinions abound on how you measure "green," Bierl said.

A main question is whether schools will be able to continue to use disinfectants to clean areas such as bathrooms, desks and cafeteria tables, officials said.

"There's no such thing as a 'green' disinfectant; it's considered a pesticide by the Environmental Protection Agency," Bierl said. "What are they (state officials) going to allow me to do?"

Task force working

The state Office of General Services is working with the state Education Department and the departments of Health, Labor and Environmental Conservation to develop specifications, guidelines and sample lists for environmentally sensitive products.

Schools would then be required to purchase these products either on their own or through central state purchasing contracts administered by OGS.

No specific definition exists for "green" cleaning products, a memo put out by OGS says. But some of the attributes of these products include being mercury-free, non-toxic or less toxic, and having recyclable packaging, it says.

To develop the list of products, the OGS task force is doing research, working with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, looking at what other states have done and talking to vendors, said Kurt Larson, director of environmental services for OGS. A key consideration is the health and safety of students and staff, but another consideration is the effectiveness of the products.

"The legislation doesn't say eliminate products that are not 'green." It says reduce or minimize," he said. "So there is some leeway."

The task force is due to finish its work by early in 2006.

Meanwhile, Southern Tier school districts are testing "green" products to see which ones work the best, officials said.

While "green" products were considered to be less effective, that's changing as these products become better, Koebel said.

Maslin said he expects "green" products to continue to improve as the market for these products increases.

"Green" products will cost more, officials said. But they don't expect this extra cost to be excessive. At the same time, staff will have to be trained to use the products effectively, they said.

Officials believe the use of "green" products could be more labor- intensive.

Custodians will have to learn to properly mix and use any new products, said Mike McGowan, director of facilities for the Union- Endicott Central School District. Union-Endicott is putting together a six-member committee to plan for next September.

But the transition should not be that difficult, said Boese, with the Healthy Schools Network. "We hope the law will be implemented in its spirit, and schools will be given good guidance."

Copyright 2005 Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin