Green cleaning and healthcare facilities
By Stephen P. Ashkin

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In its simplest terms, green cleaning means cleaning to protect health without harming the environment. It refers to the use of cleaning chemicals, tools, equipment and other products that have a reduced impact on health and the environment when compared to conventional cleaning products used for the same purposes.


Should green cleaning products be used more in healthcare locations?
  • 1. Yes
  • 2. No

While the adoption of green cleaning strategies has moved quickly in some industries, such as education, commercial offices and hotel/hospitality, it has moved at a slower pace in many healthcare locations. There are many reasons for this, including that medical facilities have far different demands and cleaning needs from virtually any other type of facility.

For instance, while a school may become concerned if several children come down with the flu in a short period of time, a hospital could potentially have to shut down entire wards if there is a significant uptick in the number of hospital-acquired infections. Because of concerns about jeopardizing patient or staff health, many hospital administrators are reluctant to make any types of changes to their cleaning practices or the type of cleaning products they select.

Another reason is legal. Federal and state regulations mandate specific types of cleaning products — typically powerful disinfectants — be used in certain sections of a healthcare facility such as emergency care and surgical areas. Products marketed in the United States that claim the ability to kill microorganisms must be registered with the Environmental Protection Agency. But while this registration may validate the products' effectiveness, these conventional products can be potentially harmful to users, building occupants and the environment, especially if used improperly or overused.

The big concern about many conventional cleaning products, even such commonly used products as window cleaners and all-purpose cleaners, is we now know they can be linked to a variety of negative health reactions. For instance, respiratory problems or eye, nose, throat and skin irritations are often caused by these cleaners, and these problems can be intensified in a healthcare setting due to the reduced immunities of many patients. Further, the hospital stay for many patients may be for several days, 24 hours per day, so they are essentially living with these chemicals.

Finally, there is one more reason healthcare administrators may be reluctant to use green cleaning products. Many are well aware that early green cleaning products had performance issues and were often expensive. In recent years, green cleaning has evolved. Performance factors and costs are far less a concern, if a concern at all.

Sustainability and green cleaning have also essentially become intertwined. The sustainability aspects of a green cleaning product focus on how the product is made, the ingredients used (whether they are from renewable sources), how it is packaged (with recycled and recyclable materials, for instance) and even how concentrated it is and the size of the container. Highly concentrated cleaning chemicals in larger containers last far longer. Among other benefits, this reduces packaging needs and fuel consumption, which in turn can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

So how can we implement a green cleaning strategy given the concerns many administrators have about some green cleaning products and the laws that require the use of typically nongreen products in certain areas of a healthcare facility? The following should cast some light on how to develop a green cleaning program specifically for a healthcare facility.

Zoning healthcare for cleaning

When it comes to greening healthcare, we can divide facilities into three key zones:
  • Critical-care zones
  • Semicritical-care zones
  • Noncritical-care zones
Critical-care zones are those areas we have discussed where federal and state laws may require the use of specific types of cleaning products, possibly including quats, phenols, aldehydes and chlorine bleach.

Semicritical-care zones are areas such as restrooms — both public and private patient bathrooms — physical therapy rooms, nonemergency clinics and patient areas where a high level of sanitation may be needed. These areas allow administrators more flexibility in what products they can select, and many times a green-certified product will prove effective.

Noncritical-care zones in hospitals include administrative areas, meeting rooms, shopping areas, etc. As referenced earlier, very often the same very powerful disinfectants used in the critical-care zones are used in the noncritical areas. Not only is this wasteful and expensive — because there are so many green cleaning products that can be used in these areas — it can also be unnecessarily harmful to users and the environment.

While it has been a relatively slow process, more medical facilities are finding ways to green their operations. Ultimately, green cleaning products and healthcare facilities have the same goal: to help protect human health. Slowly but surely this connection is being realized.

Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in greening the cleaning industry and CEO of Sustainability Dashboard Tool Inc., an electronic dashboard that allows organizations to measure and report on their sustainability efforts.