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The Boston Globe

The Boston Globe - Clean Goes Green

It's a dirty business, but companies need to start using safer cleaning products, activists say
Ric Kahn, Globe Staff

Her daughter's eyes were pink and puffy. The child's nose was scratchy and runny.

Nancy Figueroa of Jamaica Plain did everything she could to make her daughter well: She bought one medicine after another; did more wash than a 24-hour laundromat; gave to charity her daughter's stuffed animals that might be carrying dust, including the little monkey that young Katherine clung to for comfort.

Still the allergies raged.

Katherine missed so many days early on in elementary school she had to repeat a grade and say goodbye to childhood friends, her mother says.

But once she left that school, Figueroa says, the problem disappeared. It wasn't until about a year ago, after Figueroa went to work as a health advocate for the Committee for Boston Public Housing, that she surmised the allergy trigger might have been right under her daughter's dripping nose.

In an effort to keep her former schoolhouse clean, Figueroa believes, custodians may have inadvertently been discharging contaminants into the air when they scrubbed.

"I didn't link it," says Figueroa, 42. "You always think that school is a safe place."

Now, the Boston public schools are transforming themselves into greener houses of learning. Earlier this month, the superintendent unfurled an ecological manifesto, reiterating the switchover in 135 buildings, completed last year, to what officials believe are safer alternatives for day-in day-out cleaning.

"Boston public schools will provide and use more environmentally friendly effective cleaning products, which will greatly help those with asthma and allergies," Superintendent Carol Johnson declared. When it comes to cleaning green, schools aren't the city's only eco-friendly outposts. It's as if environmental activists Laurie David and Sheryl Crow came to Boston and started painting parts of the town green: from community rooms in Roxbury to kitchen counters in JP.

"People spend about 90 percent of their time indoors," says Tolle Graham, a health and safety organizer for the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, which has been at the center of many local green-clean initiatives.

Though not as sexy as fighting acid rain, global warming, or the desecration of rain forests, the environmental movement is turning its attention to indoor pollution, warning of dangers that may lurk in cleaning products used on living room furniture, in toilet bowls, and on desktops.

"This is largely invisible to our eyes," says Janet Domenitz, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group. "They aren't obvious, like a toxic spill where the river has turned a different color and the banks are foaming with pollution."

Yet advocates cite studies that allege possible links, from exposure on the job or at home, between some cleaning-product ingredients and fertility problems, birth defects, asthma, allergies, and other ailments.

Figueroa, who has asthma herself, has spread her green knowledge to her apartment at the Boston Housing Authority's South Street development, and to others. She no longer reaches for her inhaler when cleaning, she says, after subbing green materials for stronger chemicals that made her nauseated as she struggled for air.

Throughout BHA developments, she's part of a healthy-homes team that teaches residents to do things like mix one cup of white vinegar with two gallons of water to clean floors and keep at bay the roaches and rodents that also provoke asthma, while authority workers use green inhibitors to ward off asthma-grating mold.

Mainstream manufacturers say their cleaning products on the industrial and household side are safe, and that they worry that less effective alternatives could allow formidable bacteria such as E. coli to gain the upper hand.

Further, they take umbrage at being blamed for those studies' findings, questioning whether the results of the testing are due to exposure to cleaning products or to the dangerous gunk the cleaners are trying to eliminate.

"There are scare tactics being used to . . . demonize traditional cleaning products, but there's nothing to demonize," says Bill Lafield, vice president of communications for the Consumer Specialty Products Association, which represents major cleaning-product companies that the group says invests millions on safety measures. "In the cleaning-product industry, people want to do the right thing environmentally."

Still, citing past issues, from lead in gasoline to global warming, enviro-advocates predict that on green cleaning, too, they will soon go from being portrayed as shrill naysayers to shrewd prognosticators.

"It's as old as the hills," says Domenitz. "The activists raise a red flag early on . . . and get marginalized."

"I'm sick of waiting," Domenitz continues, noting a high price for standing still, not only for coughers but coffers as well - millions, she says, in lost productivity, missed school days, and medical treatment.

Though it may seem like it, the thrust toward green clean hasn't come out of the blue.

It represents an offshoot of the green building trend and an emergent alliance between labor leaders and environmentalists fighting so workers won't suck in dangerous fumes. It's an effort to reduce childhood asthma, which the Boston Urban Asthma Coalition calls the number one chronic condition treated in the city's public schools.

It's also a nexus between personal health and planetary well-being, as those cleaning products suspected of causing bodily harm might also endanger bodies of water after being flushed down the drain - another charge the industry disputes.

Enviro-advocates say that with gaps in government oversight and a lack of full-disclosure labeling requirements for all household cleaners, they won't disappear like stains zapped from a dining room table.

In fact, they say they want more: passage of proposed legislation on Beacon Hill requiring that green products be used statewide to clean specific sites frequented by the public, from schools to hospitals.

Some who've used the alt products - from professionals ordering them in industrial size to homemakers buying eco-friendly-marked items at the supermarket - say the green goods are just as effective as the mainstream brands in cost and cleaning.

Cleaning-product manufacturers oppose such a law, as does the Massachusetts Hospital Association, which is skeptical that green cleaners are up to the task of knocking out insidious germs.

As Karen Nelson, the association's senior vice president of clinical affairs, says, "You don't want your operating room to be 99 percent clean."

Janice Homer is a 47-year-old registered nurse in a Boston hospital who says she developed asthma by inhaling harsh cleaning chemicals at a previous hospital at which she she worked.

Homer is part of an illness-fighting corps that is getting sick itself at high rates. Among the occupations tracked for work-related asthma by the state Department of Public Health from 1993 to 2006, nurses ranked first, accounting for 13.3 percent of confirmed cases.

After working for more than 15 years at that hospital south of Boston, Homer says, she started feeling ill there in 2000. Her chest tightened and lungs inflamed and sinuses swelled, she says, whenever she passed a sink being cleaned or a floor being buffed.

Once, she says, she had to administer oxygen to herself when she couldn't breathe and her skin turned blue.

After she shifted to a Boston hospital, she says, she no longer was exposed to conventional buffing and spraying. Her asthma, she says, went away.

"There are alternatives," says Homer, who is active on the Massachusetts Nurses Association health and safety committee and supports the pending green clean legislation. "My example could happen to anybody."

If Homer's confrontation with cleaning chemicals was dire, Victor Euceda's was more subtle. When the 36-year-old custodian spritzed the windows at the Roxbury housing development he cares for, he sometimes felt a tickle in his throat, or a cough slowly rise from his chest.

But the brunt of the effect was in his head. He'd think, "Right now, I don't feel anything" bothering him physically.

Later on, though, he fretted that he might suffer breathing problems. What would happen to his wife and kids if he was out of work?

"We couldn't get enough money to live," Euceda said to himself.

His concerns were not farfetched. A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine that looked at worker data from Massachusetts and three other states found that exposure to cleaning products was associated with 12 percent of total asthma cases across all jobs surveyed.

When the nonprofit community development corporation Urban Edge last year converted to green cleaning at the complex Euceda maintains, and at more than a dozen of its other housing sites in the city, Euceda felt a sense of relief wash over him.

"I'm just cleaning," the Honduran native says now. "I forget about myself."

Some of that green side effect fell on Tasha Williams, too. She lives at the new Amory Residences that Euceda keeps up.

Before the environmental alteration there, Williams says she could tell when Euceda had just done her hallway.

Her teenage son, Christopher, who has asthma, would bound up the stairs like he'd just run for miles: wheezing, coughing, heaving.

Her daughter Lorraine, now 8, would start her nonstop allergy sneezing.

Her own asthma would kick in, her lungs clamping closed.

She was dubious that the green products would really clean. But that skepticism, she says, soon dissolved. Now, she says, her family's breathing easier all around.

"It's better for my kids," says Williams, 38, who's gone uber-eco inside her home, as well.

In the last year or so, she figures she's saved $100 from the change to green cleaning, from fewer doctor visits to lower pharmacy co-payments.

For her family, Williams says, that kind of green has had other restorative benefits, like extra trips to the movies and more Friday night pizzas. 

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