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Cleaning Chemicals


Properties

Cleaning can be particularly important in healthcare facilities, to limit the spread of infection, as well as for aesthetic considerations.  To ensure that the job is done effectively, facilities rely on a wide variety of potent chemicals to attack and remove contaminants.

Cleaning chemicals in common use in healthcare facilities fall into several product categories including:

  • Air fresheners
  • Bathroom and tile cleaners
  • Dusting aids
  • Fabric protectants
  • Floor polishes/waxes
  • Furniture maintenance products (aerosols)
  • General purpose cleaners
  • Glass cleaners

While these chemicals may be beneficial when acting on their intended targets, they may also have the capacity to cause inadvertent damage to people (both to those using them and to bystanders exposed to them), and to other creatures and objects in the environment.  It is advisable to know what to look for when purchasing or specifying cleaning chemicals, and what to watch out for when using them.


Risks

Cleaning chemicals can cause damage by direct contact with skin, eyes, or other sensitive tissue, or through inhalation of vapors.  This section lists a number of specific risks involved in using various types of cleaning product.

A good source of information on specific risks is the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS).   The US Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) requires the manufacturer of any hazardous chemical sold in the US to provide an MSDS listing items such as:

  • physical and chemical characteristics
  • potential hazardous effects
  • recommendations for appropriate protective measures
  • recommendations for disposal

Your vendor should be able to supply you with an MSDS for any cleaning product you purchase.

Skin and Eye Irritants:  Many cleaning chemicals are either mildly or strongly irritating to the skin and/or eyes.  Check the pH level (on the MSDS), check the “Health Hazard” and “Special Protection” sections of the MSDS, product label or other technical product information. Check for products that:

  • Are corrosive to the eyes, skin or mucous membranes

  • Can cause serious eye or mucous membrane damage

  • Can burn the skin

Choose products that are the least irritating — those listed as "mild irritants" on the MSDS in preference to those listed as "severe irritants".

Toxic Chemicals:  Check the “Ingredients” section of the MSDS to determine whether a cleaning product contains toxic chemicals that can impact human health of workers, patients and visitors.

  • If any of the listed ingredients are identified as carcinogens, it would be advisable to look for alternative products
  • Look for any ingredient subject to SARA (or Toxic Release Inventory-TRI) reporting
  • Look at attached links to determine toxicity of ingredients
  • Some cleaning chemicals present particular problems.  Examples include:
    • Quaternary ammonium compounds.  Long-term exposure to disinfectants containing quaternary ammonium compounds may lead to occupational asthma and hypersensitivity syndrome.
    • Floor strippers and Polishing Compounds.  Chemicals in these products include diethylene glycol ethyl ether, aliphatic petroleum distillates and nonyl-phenol ethoxylate, ethanolamine (a known sensitizer), butoxyethanol, and sodium hydroxide.  Exposure to these chemicals may cause headaches, eye irritation, dizziness, nausea, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, wheezing, coughing, asthma attacks, respiratory infections, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, and nose, throat and skin irritation.

VOC Content: Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a significant source of indoor air pollution and photochemical smog . The VOC level should be listed on the MSDS, or the manufacturer should be able to supply a technical data sheet that includes the concentration of VOCs in a product's formulation.  Choose the product with the lowest VOC level.

Dyes:  Dyes are sometimes added to cleaning products to  help housekeeping staff identify a particular product, and to keep them from confusing it with another similar product, which under some circumstances can have dangerous results.   However, many dyes are environmental toxicants, and some are even carcinogens.  Some in the medical community advocate removing dyes and instead using alternative packaging that clearly identifies the product to housekeeping staff.

Packaging:  Certain forms of packaging can actually reduce occupational exposure to the worker. There is also packaging that works toward environmental sustainability by offering recyclable, refillable, reusable packaging, cleaning products offered in bulk or concentrated form, or packaging made of recycled content.


Compliance requirements

Certain Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations relate to cleaning chemicals:

  • OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard (HazCom), requires that information concerning any associated health or physical hazards be transmitted to employees via comprehensive hazard communication programs (Go to HERC HazCom page). The programs must include:
    • Written Program.  A written that meets the requirements of the Hazard Communication Standard (HazCom).
    • Labels. In-plant containers of hazardous chemicals must be labeled, tagged, or marked with the identity of the material and appropriate hazard warnings.
    • Material Safety Data Sheets. Employers must have an MSDS for each hazardous chemical which they use and MSDSs must be readily accessible to employees when they are in their work areas during their workshifts.
    • Employee Information and Training. Each employee who may be “exposed” to hazardous chemicals when working must be provided information and be trained prior to initial assignment to work with a hazardous chemical, and whenever the hazard changes.
  • Depending on the ingredients contained in the cleaner and its manner of use, employee protection may be required, including ventilation controls, personal protective equipment, clothing or gloves, or other applicable precautions. This assessment should be made by the employer, again, based on the unique conditions of use of the product at that establishment.
  • Where the eyes or body of any person may be exposed to injurious corrosive materials, employers must provide suitable mechanisms for quick drenching or flushing of the eyes and body within the work area for immediate emergency use [1910.151(c)].

Certain Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations may also apply to cleaning chemicals:

Some cleaning chemicals are considered hazardous wastes, and are regulated under RCRA.

  • If the sole active ingredient of a cleaning chemical is a P or U-listed waste (this information is available on the MSDS) the product itself must be managed as a hazardous waste.
  • A cleaning chemical might also have to be considered a characteristic hazardous waste due to:
    • corrosivity: It is important to check the pH level of the cleaning product. Many cleaning products have pHs higher than 11 or lower than 2. A cleaning product may be considered hazardous if it has a pH of less than 2 or greater than 12.5. This information can be determined form the MSDS under the “Physical Data” category.
    • toxicity
    • reactivity

Alternatives

Look for products that are certified to meet certain environmental and health and safety criteria. There are several accrediting bodies that make determinations about whether cleaning chemicals have met environmental criteria.

  • Green Seal
  • Canada’s Environmental Choice Program
  • New American Dream
  • State Programs

Disposal requirements

Check to see if end product being used (after dilution) is to be managed under RCRA. If not, most cleaning solutions can be disposed of to the sanitary sewer, so long as the local POTW permits it. Check with POTW to determine feasibility of sending cleaning chemical residuals to sanitary sewer.


More resources

Cleaning Chemical Use in Hospitals Fact Sheet. Found in Health Care Without Harm’s 10 Ways to Find Safer, Greener Cleaners.

Household Products Database. The National Institutes of Health Information Household Products Database is taken from a variety of publicly available sources, including brand-specific labels and Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) prepared by manufacturers. You can search by product category or by ingredient, and it gives you MSDSs plus other information. It’s geared toward household products, but it includes some cleaning chemicals used at healthcare facilities.

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