Green Does Not Necessarily Mean Safe

Ecolabels focus on environmentally friendly attributes and not worker safety.

By Julie Sobelman, Contributing Writer  

As the green building industry has evolved, use of environmentally friendly products has gone from a trend to being regulated and contractually required in many locations. The number of “green” facilities maintenance and cleaning products has skyrocketed. Products are marketed as biodegradable, natural, earth-friendly, and eco-safe. These terms generally have no legal definition, which means that manufacturers do not need to adhere to any standard or substantiate the claim. To better define product claims, a variety of labeling frameworks or “ecolabels” have evolved. 

Ecolabels are marks placed on product packaging or in e-catalogs that can help consumers and institutional purchasers quickly and easily identify those products that meet specific environmental performance criteria and are therefore deemed “environmentally preferable”. Ecolabels can be owned or managed by government agencies, nonprofit environmental advocacy organizations, or private sector entities. 

Ecolabels can be single-attribute, meaning they focus on a single lifecycle stage (i.e. the use phase) of a product/service or a single environmental issue (i.e. VOC emissions). They can also be multi-attribute, meaning they focus on the entire lifecycle (manufacture, use, maintenance, disposal) of a product/service and address many different environmental issues (i.e. energy use, chemical use, recycling, and more). 

The website ecolabelindex.com, which claims to be the largest global directory of ecolabels, is currently tracking 456 ecolabels in 199 countries, and 25 industry sectors — so many that there are published guidelines to help consumers understand what is meant by the various labeling frameworks. 

It is easy to assume that green products are better for maintenance and janitorial staff who use them. However, with all of the eco-labeled products to choose from there is no overall eco-label attribute for product safety. While eco-lableled products may focus on “natural ingredients” or reduction in a specific class of chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) many “green” products still pose safety and health risks for those using them.   

As an example, the information below is a snapshot from an eco-labeled multipurpose cleaner.  The product is environmentally preferable because it meets the low/no VOC criteria. However, the product is labeled “corrosive” and has a listed pH of 12.2 - 12.5 which can cause immediate and potentially severe damage to eyes and skin. The chemical should not contact metal and is incompatible with strong oxidizing agents, strong acids and strong alkalies. All of these product attributes should be considered to determine where and how the product can be safely used and stored. 

Other common terms such as “natural” or “plant-based” ingredients may also be misleading when it comes to product safety. Plant-based ingredients, included in some green products, include limonene (a citrus-based oil), pine oil, and the foaming agent coconut diethanolamide — all of which can cause allergic dermatitis. 

While environmentally preferable products may have certain benefits, don’t assume they are safe for your staff. Review all product information prior to purchase. Once obtained, ensure staff understand proper use, handling, and storage requirements. 

Julie Sobelman CIH, CSP, LEED AP, is an industry consultant with 35 years of professional experience partnering with clients to minimize risks, achieve environmental health and safety (EHS) objectives, and ensuring the delivery of high-quality EHS compliance and management systems services. 

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  posted on 7/14/2023   Article Use Policy

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