Potential Health Problems Caused by Cleaning Chemicals

Many factors influence whether a cleaning chemical will cause health problems. Some important factors to consider include:

• Chemical ingredients of the cleaning product;

• How the cleaning product is being used or stored;

• Ventilation in the area where the cleaning product is used;

• Whether there are splashes and spills;

• Whether the cleaning product comes in contact with the skin; and

• Whether mist, vapors and/or gases are released.

Chemicals in some cleaning products can be irritating to the skin or can cause rashes. Cleaning products that contain corrosive chemicals can cause severe burns if splashed on the skin or in the eyes. Mists, vapors and/or gases from cleaning chemicals can irritate the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. Symptoms may include burning eyes, sore throat, coughing, trouble breathing and wheezing.

Chemicals in some cleaning products can cause asthma or trigger asthma attacks. Some cleaning products contain hazardous chemicals that can enter the body through skin contact or from breathing gases into the lungs. Mixing cleaning products that contain bleach and ammonia can cause severe lung damage or death.

Choosing Safer Cleaning Chemicals: Cleaners, Sanitizers or Disinfectants

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines cleaners, sanitizers and disinfectants as follows:

• Cleaners remove dirt through wiping, scrubbing, or mopping.

• Sanitizers contain chemicals that reduce, but do not necessarily eliminate, microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, and molds from surfaces. Public health codes may require cleaning with the use of sanitizers in certain areas, like toilets and food preparation areas.

• Disinfectants contain chemicals that destroy or inactivate microorganisms that cause infections. Disinfectants are critical for infection control in hospitals and other healthcare settings.

Cleaners, sanitizers, and disinfectants serve different purposes, and it is important to choose the least hazardous cleaning chemical that will accomplish the task at hand. Before purchasing cleaning products, determine whether or not sanitizing or disinfecting is necessary. If sanitizing or disinfecting is not required, then choose a cleaner.  In general, disinfectants and sanitizers are more hazardous than cleaners.

If sanitizing or disinfecting is necessary, be sure that the product purchased is effective for the microorganisms being targeted. EPA regulates sanitizers and disinfectants (termed “antimicrobial pesticides”). For further information, see EPA’s webpage “What Are Antimicrobial Pesticides?” (https://www.epa.gov/pesticides/antimicrobial-pesticides).

Choosing Safer Cleaning Chemicals: Green Cleaners

Many employers and building managers are purchasing “green” cleaning chemicals with the expectation that green cleaning products are safer for workers and the environment. However, placing the word “green” in a name or on a bottle does not ensure that a chemical is safe. Employers should review the cleaning chemicals they purchase, including green cleaning products, to understand their health and safety hazards. Employers should choose the least hazardous cleaners.

Independent organizations are now certifying chemicals, including cleaners, as “green.” Certified green cleaners must meet specific criteria as defined by the certifying organization. Employers may find information from these certifying organizations helpful when purchasing cleaning chemicals. Visit the EPA webpage, www.epa.gov/greenerproducts for guidance on cleaning products.

Choosing Safer Cleaning Chemicals: Material Safety Data Sheets

When choosing safer cleaning chemicals, employers can learn much from Safety Data Sheets (SDSs). Employers must obtain and maintain SDSs for all hazardous cleaning products and chemicals that they use. SDSs must be readily accessible to workers.

Employers can use the information contained in the SDSs to ensure that workers are properly protected. SDSs include the following important information:

• Hazardous chemical ingredients;

• Symptoms and health problems that may be caused by the chemical ingredients;

• First-aid measures if workers are exposed;

• Recommended personal protective equipment, such as gloves, safety goggles or respirators; and

• Proper procedures for cleaning up spills.

Safe Work Practices When Using Cleaning Chemicals

Employers must provide safe working conditions for employees using cleaning chemicals. When cleaning chemicals are hazardous, employers must train workers on safe work practices for using these chemicals. Safe work practices when using cleaning chemicals include the following:

• Warning workers not to mix cleaning products that contain bleach and ammonia;

• Making sure that workers know which cleaning chemicals must be diluted and how to correctly dilute the cleaners they are using;

• Thoroughly reviewing and training workers on the use, storage, and emergency spill procedures for cleaning chemicals;

• Reviewing the proper protective equipment needed, such as gloves and goggles, and providing the proper protective equipment to the workers using the cleaning product;

• Ensuring that all containers of cleaning products and chemicals are labeled to identify their contents and hazards;

• Operating ventilation systems as needed during cleaning tasks to allow sufficient air flow and prevent buildup of hazardous vapors; and

• Providing workers with a place to wash up after using cleaning chemicals.

Worker Training

Chemicals pose a wide range of health and safety hazards. OSHA’s Hazard Communication standard (29 CFR 1910.1200) is designed to ensure that information about these hazards and associated protective measures is communicated to workers. Worker training must be provided if the cleaning chemicals are hazardous. This training must be provided BEFORE the worker begins using the cleaner. Required training under the OSHA Hazard Communication standard includes:

• Health and physical hazards of the cleaning chemicals;

• Proper handling, use and storage of all cleaning chemicals being used, including dilution procedures when a cleaning product must be diluted before use;

• Proper procedures to follow when a spill occurs;

• Personal protective equipment required for using the cleaning product, such as gloves, safety goggles and respirators; and

• How to obtain and use hazard information, including an explanation of labels and SDSs.

The following are important issues to be discussed with workers during training:

• Never mix different cleaning chemicals together. Dangerous gases can be released.

• Cleaning chemicals should not be used to wash hands. Wash your hands with water after working with a cleaning chemical, especially before eating, drinking, or smoking.

Employers must provide training to workers at a level and in a language and vocabulary that they can understand.

Better Ways to Clean

Employers should note recent advances in safe cleaning practices and the availability of modern cleaning equipment that minimizes the use of chemicals. Practices and equipment to consider include:

• Walk-off mats placed inside and outside of entryways (to prevent dirt from being tracked into the building);

• Microfiber mops, cloths, and dusters;

• High-filtration HEPA vacuums;

• Walk-behind hard floor auto-scrubbers;

• Hands-free mops; and

• Chemical-free cleaning systems.                       

Spencer-SHE has been providing Safety, Health, and Environmental Compliance Guidance since 1980.  Our industrial hygiene professionals can conduct health hazard evaluations which can help workers and employers learn whether health hazards are present at their workplace.

Contact us here to help you to develop and maintain a safe and healthy workforce.