A scrubbable feast: Albemarle to decide if green is clean
If your name is Lysol or Clorox, you're no longer welcome in Albemarle County buildings, and you may soon be banned from county schools as well. On June 4, the Board of Supervisors did away with synthetic chemical cleaning agents in county buildings, ending routine disinfecting of high-touch areas–- bathrooms and kitchens– unless there's a viral outbreak or other health emergency. In place of disinfecting, the new policy calls for sanitizing–- cleaning with plain old soap and water or green cleaners. On Thursday, July 10, the Albemarle County School Board will begin considering whether schools should also go green when it's time to clean.
The idea is horrifying to Ivy resident Kevin Connally, who believes the new cleaning procedure makes anyone in county buildings– and children in particular– vulnerable to gastrointestinal bugs including the flu.
"Children have a lot more hand-to-mouth activity, especially the little ones, and their hand-washing habits may not be as rigorous as adults'," says Connally. "We know that when a toilet is flushed, germs become airborn, and they land on hard surfaces like light switches, faucets, and toilet seats."
Connally points out that the committee appointed by the supervisors to study the implications of choosing sanitizing over disinfecting recommended the continuation of routine disinfection in county buildings. The supervisors, however, unanimously overrode that recommendation, choosing instead to side with defenders of green cleaning, who say sanitizing is sufficient to prevent the spread of disease and that a lack of information is what keeps people using synthetic chemicals to clean.
While the dictionary definitions of disinfecting and sanitizing are vague–- disinfecting aims to kill all germs, while sanitizing aims to kill most–- one Albemarle resident says the difference is actually minute.
"It would help [people decide] if they knew that the distinction between disinfection and sanitization is that disinfection kills 99.999 percent of germs while sanitization means you'll kill 99.9 percent," says Jackie Lombardo, a Sierra Club member who founded a nonprofit anti-pesticide group called Friends and Advocates for Children, Teachers and Schools.
Inspired by various studies that show that even very low exposure to pesticides (including disinfectants) over time has been linked with learning disabilities, cancer, and asthma in children, Lombardo and her groups have already fought to change the way County schools handle pest control. They won that battle last year, convincing the Albemarle school board to adopt an integrated pest management plan to reduce the use of pesticides. In the past eight months, says Lombardo, the schools eliminated 200 scheduled pesticide treatments. Now she hopes the schools will do the same for cleaning agents.
The county supervisors are on her side. Supervisor David Slutzky argues that killing all the germs on a toilet handle won't necessarily keep children healthy.
"Kids have many pathways of exposure to pathogens in the course of school day," Slutzky says. "It doesn't seem potentially efficacious to isolate one area and super kill."
And Lombardo points out that a toilet is only disinfected until the next person uses it. Then, it's just as contaminated as a toilet that had been sanitized.
University industrial hygienist Kristy Davis agrees with Lombardo and Slutzky. "Unless there's an outbreak that warrants extra cleaning, disinfecting doesn't make any sense, since we're trying to reduce chemicals in the schools," she says.
In addition to considering health and the environment in its decision, Wheeler says the board will also ask questions about the budget implications of the change.
According to projections provided by the committee, to go green for cleaning and landscape maintenance, the school system would need to spend between $72,669 and $100,430 more than the existing budget currently allots for fiscal year 2009, and over five years, the change would add an estimated $352,409 to $465,693.
"Those costs are largely not budgeted for in the upcoming year," Wheeler says.
The greener products are more expensive, says Sarah Temple, the County's environmental compliance manager, and labor costs would also increase from the change. For instance, weeds that had previously been sprayed with chemicals would now be removed manually, a more time-consuming process.
Parent Connally says he doesn't object to schools weeding rather than spraying for plant control, but he believes cleaning is a different story. Killing all germs should be paramount, he says, and he denies there's a health risk associated with most disinfectants.
"We're talking about Lysol spray and Clorox wipes," he says. "We're not talking about something nuclear that makes the rooms glow."
While Davis insists that sanitizing is sufficient to prevent disease, she agrees with Connally that typical disinfectants pose little or no threat to children's health. According to the county staff report, the products used in both school and local government buildings are diluted so that they have a Hazard Materials Identification System health rating of one i.e. "Slight Hazard: Irritation or minor reversible injury possible," according to OSHA's standards.
Davis is more concerned about the environmental effects: she says using disinfectants could prove problematic in the future because exposure might cause surviving generations of organisms to develop resistance to these chemicals. Sanitizing does not create such superbugs.
"We could be creating a situation where we don't have control," she says.
While going green is on the School Board's Thursday, July 10 agenda, the policy will not be set in one meeting, according to Chairman Brian Wheeler, who promises "ample opportunity for public feedback."