Time was, if the tiles in your building’s front foyer got grimy, your super would pour some ammonia or bleach in a bucket, grab the nearest mop, and get down to business. If a drain was slow, out came the heavy-duty industrial solvents, and down the hatch. Today however, things are different in a great many buildings. There’s been a shift away from harsh, potentially dangerous cleaners and chemicals in residential buildings, and more and more boards and managers are requiring their building staff members to shelve the strong stuff in favor of gentler, less volatile “green” products.
The reasons for this shift are multiple—people are more conscious of what they put into the environment, but also about what kinds of substances they expose themselves and their families to. In the context of an urban residential building, the issue of product safety and environmental impact becomes even more pressing. It’s not just one family living in the building—there could be hundreds—so it’s more important than ever to carefully consider what types of products are being put to use in your building.
While few would argue against the many benefits of disinfectants and sanitizers, some cleaning products do have a significant downside: they may kill germs, but they pose distinct hazards to our health. The danger may be immediate—as in the case of caustic chemicals that burn the skin or cause respiratory or eye irritation upon contact—or they may be more slow-acting, contributing to long-term health problems such as cancer or disruptions of the endocrine system.
According to Philip Dickey, a staff scientist with the Washington Toxics Coalition in Seattle, the prime offenders in the first category are the corrosives, such as drain cleaners, and the many toilet and bathroom cleaning products that contain chlorine bleach or ammonia. Both bleach and ammonia give off fumes that cause eye, nose, and respiratory distress almost immediately upon exposure, but the two chemicals can be downright deadly if mixed together. When dumped into a water supply in significant amounts, their toxic effects spread farther afield.
And it’s not just the overtly toxic components of cleaning products that cause trouble—the otherwise inoffensive ingredients in many cleaning products and chemicals can cause eye, nose, throat, and lung problems for people with pre-existing conditions such as asthma or other allergies.