News & Events

Toxic cleaning chemicals replaced with those that are safer for all

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
March 2003 Edition

By Evelyn Bain, M Ed, RN, COHN-S
Associate Director/Coordinator, Health & Safety

MNA members, in hospitals and health care settings across the state, are beginning to see toxic environmental cleaning chemicals replaced with products that are safer for all those working in the health care industry as well as patients and the environment.

Recently the Cape Cod Times published the article, Island hospital gets rid of antiseptic smell, describing changes in environmental cleaning chemicals identified as toxic to the environment. Many of these chemicals have been identified as toxic to human health as well.

For the past few years, nurses have been aware that headaches, burning eyes, coughing and even asthma symptoms that happened at work, seemed to be somehow related to what was happening with the housekeepers. They began to notice that as these very hard working people were spraying or buffing or polishing the floors and countertops, their eyes would burn, their coughing would begin and their headaches might even start. After some nurses developed asthma and several of their co-workers had even experienced anaphylaxis, they begin to hunt for the answers.

How could they learn more about these cleaning products? Nurses looked at the labels on the containers that the housekeepers used and learned the names of the products. (They also noticed that some containers did not have any labels.) In annual safety training programs, they had learned that Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) contained the information about health effects of chemicals used in the workplace. They hunted down the MSDS for the environmental cleaning chemicals. The nurses found the section about Hazards Identification and learned that many of the symptoms they were having were noted on the MSDS. They also went on the internet to learn more.

Nurses learned that a product frequently used in many hospitals to strip the wax from the floor could cause central nervous system effects of headache, dizziness and nausea and respiratory effects of coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. The vapors and mists could produce symptoms of burning, tearing, redness and pain in their eyes. On a scale of 1 to 4 (4 being the most toxic), the product had a rating of 3. The MSDS said that the product should only be used "in a well ventilated area". Yet the areas where the products were being used in had no windows. The air coming out of the vents in the walls did not seem to change when the housekeepers arrived with their spray containers and buffing machines. So this product was not being used according to the manufacturers directions.

MNA members called the Massachusetts Department of Health, Occupational Safety and Health Program (OSHP) to see if there was information that would help them understand more about these chemicals. They learned the OSHP was studying Occupational Asthma as part of a grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The study was finding that environmental cleaning chemicals were a major cause of work related asthma in health care and other workers. Some of that information is presented here in the article Work-Related Asthma Cases – Massachusetts SENSOR 1993-2001

As MNA members learned more about these cleaning chemicals they wanted others to have this information. They worked with Health Care Without Harm to develop the Fact Sheet on Cleaning Chemicals (HCWH) that also accompanies this article. The Fact Sheet has been distributed locally and at several national meetings and can be obtained at the HCWH website

The issue of toxic environmental cleaning chemicals causing adverse health effects in healthcare and other workers, and probably patients, is far from being resolved. Yet every day now, more is being learned, more changes are taking place, and thanks to groups like the Deirdre Imus Foundation and the members of the MNA Congress on Health and Safety, the concern is taking a very positive turn and the need to eliminate toxic chemicals and replace them with products safer for health and the environment is being understood.