Healthy Learning

Mark Bishop likes to tell this true story: A facility manager supervising 15 janitors at a large school district embraced the concept of green cleaning three years ago. The facility manager had grown weary of seeing his dedicated staff of janitors sit down during the day because they were dizzy from fumes caused by the cleaning chemicals. It wasn’t much of a leap to think of how those same fumes were affecting the children and staff who spent their day in these schools. Mark, deputy director of the Healthy Schools Campaign of Chicago, Ill., says this story confirmed the need for a new Illinois law, The Green Clean Schools Act, passed in August 2007.


The Healthy Schools Campaign, an independent non-profit organization, began about five years ago when a coalition interested in reducing the use of pesticides in schools came together and quickly realized there wasn't an existing group addressing overall health issues in schools. "General chemical exposure is unhealthy for vulnerable populations, such as young students, who don’t have full immunity systems. We're working to address that," says Mark.

As of January 2008, Illinois and New York are the only states to implement Green Clean Schools legislation. In July, 2008, Missouri Governor Matt Blunt signed a new law requiring schools to establish green cleaning policies. The Illinois Green Clean Schools Act-Public Act 095-0084-defines Green Cleaning as cleaning to protect health without harming the environment. After studying the East Coast law and meeting with New York officials, Illinois was able to successfully form a coalition of interested public and private entities and fast-track its own law.

The Illinois Green Government Council is responsible for establishing guidelines, along with several public entities, including the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and the Illinois State Board of Education. Mark notes that the law doesn't require schools to trash their existing inventory of supplies. Rather, it states that a school may implement the new requirements in the procurement cycle of the following school year.

The Healthy Schools Campaign created a "Quick and Easy Guide to Green Cleaning in Schools" for anyone interested in learning more. One Chicago school, Jones College Prep High School, began its green cleaning program by using a plant-derived multi-use cleaner and found it to be just as effective as traditional cleaners. The school then replaced five traditional chemical products with the new environmentally sensitive cleaner.

Green Products Not More Costly

Jones College Prep's effort began with the school's chief engineer, Dan Casasanto. He says his school has seen "huge savings on the chemicals" since it switched to green cleaning and that he expects to see additional savings as more schools go green, driving down product costs overall.

"Green cleaning doesn't have to cost more," says Mark. "Green products can actually save a school money through a reduction in absenteeism of students, teachers and janitorial staff. Students focus better in an environment that's healthy." Mark also points out that keeping kids healthy increases attendance, and therefore, may increase the school’s state revenues, as well as reduce substitute teacher costs.

MRSA Infection Sparks Concern

Mark, of the Healthy Schools Campaign, recognizes the public's current concern sparked by media coverage of MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, usually pronounced "Mursa"). The infection is most commonly spread in hospitals, schools and other public places. Key to halting the spread of any infection is prevention through proper hygiene.

"Janitors are the number one line of defense for healthy students. They should be viewed as part of the health staff as much as cleaning staff," says Mark. He notes that while there is some resistance to change, most janitors are excited about the new green cleaning movement. "I really, truly believe we need to value our janitorial staff more. We need to invest in their training."

Illinois Law Timeline

The law sets a timeline for Illinois schools to move toward a green program. By February 9, 2008, the Green Government Coordinating Council established "guidelines and specifications for environmentally-sensitive cleaning and maintenance products for use in school facilities."

By May, 2008, all elementary and secondary public schools have established their own policy to exclusively purchase and use these environmentally-sensitive cleaning products. Mark says he expects green policy to be set at the school district level.

While the law applies to cleaning programs throughout the school, including cafeteria and food preparation areas, the use of safer disinfectants and sanitizers will be recommendations rather than requirements and will not override local health department rules. Currently there are few "green" standards for disinfectants. But cleaning industry and public health representatives on the Council will help ensure that healthful best practices are included in the guidelines. The guidelines are expected to evolve as new information and innovations are created.

Mark says the wide availability of green cleaning products should result in a seamless process for schools to make the transition. "The intent is not to create a greater burden, but to set clear guidelines, elevate the priority, and we believe manufacturers and distributors will step up to the plate. The end result will be a healthier school environment." It may also make for healthier homes. Schools can also be change agents, with lessons provided to children taken home and adopted by parents.

Like New York, the state of Illinois expects to have an online database of green cleaning products by summer 2008 to share with schools. According to Mark, the Healthy Schools Campaign will point schools toward standards such as Green Seal, Environmental Choice, and EPA procurement standards.

"To say that green cleaning is catching on is really an understatement," says Mark. "This is the start of an important change in the way we view cleaning at schools, and it's exciting to have worked with the team that made it happen."

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