A carpet cleaning company was recently engaged to clean the carpets and upholstery of a small office. Next morning the stains were gone, the colours were vibrant again and everyone was happy. Everyone that is, except one employee.
When this person entered the room, they were smacked with a wall of fragrance so strong, that their throat swelled up, their eyes itched and their head throbbed. Struggling to think through an intense ‘brain fog’, their productivity levels plummeted for the next few days. What went wrong?
The true cost of scented cleaning products
Air fresheners and scented cleaning products have been shown to contribute significantly to indoor air pollution. It is also well established that poor indoor air quality (IAQ) can result in decreased productivity and may reduce work performance by up to 9 percent.
As well as the human cost, the cost of poor IAQ to business is quite staggering. Way back in 1998, a CSIRO report put the annual cost of poor IAQ to Australian business at $12 billion. So even if workers are not grabbing for the tissue box or Panadol, their ability to think clearly and stay on task could be diminished by constant exposure to scented products.
Not so clean and healthy
However, fragrances used in cleaning products and air-fresheners are also linked to some pretty serious health hazards.
1) Volatile organic compounds (VOCs):
VOCs are organic chemicals that can evaporate into the air under normal indoor conditions – allowing them to be easily inhaled and potentially causing a range of respiratory and neurological health problems. In 2011, Steinemann carried out tests on 25 scented cleaning products and found a total of 133 different VOCs in them. Of these, 24 were classified as toxic or hazardous (USA) and only 2 were listed on the MSDS.
Most people are surprised to learn that many synthetic fragrances contain IARC listed carcinogens (including those used in perfume and aftershave). Steinemann’s research showed that 44% of the products tested generated at least 1 of 4 carcinogenic hazardous air pollutants (acetaldehyde, 1,4-dioxane, formaldehyde, and methylene chloride).
While a cleaning products may only contain a small amount of fragrance, we are being exposed to a cocktail of scents on a daily basis, from air-fresheners, cleaning agents, disinfectants, laundry detergents, hand-soap, deodorant, perfumes and aftershave etc…. We have no idea what we are breathing in because fragrances do not need to be declared on the label or SDS, nor what the long-term health effects may be. We do know that babies subjected to constant use of scented cleaning agents and air-fresheners have higher rates of asthma.
3) Chemical sensitivity:
For people with chemical sensitivities, negotiating public spaces, such as shopping centres, schools, airports, restaurants and restrooms, is like a minefield. Because of the wide-spread use of automated air-freshener mists, plug-in vaporisers and scented hand-soaps, it can be virtually impossible to avoid them. Chemical-sensitivity in a scented world can be totally debilitating.
For those of us with mild chemical sensitivity, it can just be frustrating and embarrassing trying to pull our brain out of the abyss when working where a scented cleaning agent (or strong aftershave) has been used.
Because yes – I am that ‘office worker’ in the introduction.
Cleaning industry dilemma
The hidden cost of scented cleaning products poses a real dilemma for the cleaning industry. Most people understand the hazards associated with solvents, stain removers, strippers and bleach. But fragrance is usually viewed as a safe and added benefit. In fact, the use of fragranced cleaners and air-fresheners is often demanded by the building users. There is a persistent belief that if they can’t smell a cleaning agent, it hasn’t been cleaned. A bathroom without an air-freshener is considered ‘unhygienic’.
Yet there is a growing international movement for scent-free environments especially in Canada and the USA. Providing scent-free areas if requested by workers with Fragrance Sensitivity, is now a requirement under the ‘Americans with Disabilities Act’ (ADA).
While there is no such legislation in Australia or New Zealand, a growing awareness about indoor air pollutants, and the adoption of building ratings systems with IAQ criteria such as Green-Star Performance, WELL and NABERs (IEQ), means this is a smelly issue that the cleaning industry can no longer ignore.
What you can do about it
- Offer a scent-free choice for routine services:
- Fragrance-free cleaning agents*
- Altered water technology
- Microfibre with tap water only
- Use a cleaning consultant to help you write a cleaning protocol that meets the WELL Criteria.
- Get educated so you can help your Facility Manager to counter the occupant’s belief that fragrance = clean with a Green Cleaning Management Workshop
Because clean doesn’t have smell.
About the author
Bridget Gardner is CEO of Fresh Green Clean. She has completed WELL and Green Star-Performance Foundation training.
This article was published in Inclean Magazine on March 12, 2018.
- Health and societal effects from exposure to fragranced consumer products, 2017, Steinemann A.
- The effects of indoor air quality on performance and productivity, Wyon DP.
- Fragranced consumer products: chemicals emitted, ingredients unlisted, 2010, Steinemann AC, et al.
- Asthma link to household cleaning products, 2004, Medical News Today.
- New ADA Guidelines for Fragrance Sensitivity, Labour Law Centre, USA
*Note: GECA and Global Green Tag Standards prohibit certain fragrances and restrict VOCs to 3% but do not require products to be fragrance-free.