Cleaning industry myths debunked – part 1
Green washing undermines the credibility of products with genuine environmental credentials, and creates confusion and misinformation about chemicals in general. PAUL AGAR of Agar Cleaning Systems clears up some of this confusion by looking at some common misconceptions.
Chemical selection is a major focal point in commercial cleaning at present, and in the drive towards green cleaning, products that minimise environmental impact are in demand. Marketers have seen an opportunity in this, leading to steady growth in the offering of products positioned as alternatives to chemicals, or that supposedly do away with chemicals altogether.
Unfortunately, some have taken advantage of the situation to offer products labelled in a way to suggest that they are not ‘toxic’ chemicals, or that they are a natural alternative to chemicals, when in fact they offer no real benefit compared with what seem to have become known as ‘traditional’ products. This phenomenon is known as ‘green washing’.
The problem with this is that, first, it undermines the credibility of those ethical suppliers that market products with genuine environmental credentials, and it creates confusion and misinformation about chemicals in general and their role in cleaning. In an effort to clear up some of this confusion, it may be useful to look at some common misconceptions about chemicals and the removal of soil.
MYTH 1: Natural substances are not chemicals
There is a widespread fashionable idea that if something is natural, it must be safe. From a chemist’s point of view, however, all substances are chemicals, whether they are from nature or not. Some natural substances are extremely toxic, such as arsenic, strychnine, nicotine, snake venom and asbestos, among hundreds of other examples.
Did you know that amyl acetate is found in bananas naturally? It is also used as a solvent in paint strippers. The difference is that in bananas it is present in tiny concentrations, but in paint stripper it is present in a high concentration.
MYTH 2: Chemicals are artificial substances that have dire health effects
All artificial and natural substances are made up of chemicals. Every substance is made of atoms of one kind or another and these are grouped into compounds that make up everything. The human body is full of compounds, and chemical reactions are happening all the time. Some artificial substances pose a risk to health, as do some natural substances, but each chemical has to be assessed on its own merits. The origin of the substance does not determine its safety or health hazards.
MYTH 3: Cleaning chemicals derived from natural sources are less toxic and better for the environment
It does not follow that a naturally derived ingredient will be less toxic than an artificial one: if they both have the same formula, their toxicity will be the same. Ingredients that come from nature may be bad for the environment. For example, they may be derived from palm trees that have been grown on land that was cleared of native forest that was the habitat for endangered animals.
MYTH 4: Phosphates are bad for the environment
Phosphates are often portrayed as being an enemy of the environment. The fact is that they are essential for all life to exist. They acquired a bad reputation when the great lakes of the US became overloaded with phosphates to the extent that they caused heavy algal blooms to grow. Phosphates are fertilisers and they make plants grow (think about the farmers, who all use superphosphate). They are only bad in the environment when they are in the wrong place at the wrong concentration. Allowing a phosphate-containing detergent to go down the sewer is not a problem. On the contrary, as long as the concentration is not too high, the phosphates will help the treatment works’ bacteria to grow.
MYTH 5: Fragrances are strong irritants
Very few fragrances have irritating properties. Usually fragrances are added at very low concentration levels in cleaning products, and while you can smell these perfumes, they comprise such a small part of the product that they are harmless. A small number of people may be allergic to a particular fragrance and these people should use non-perfumed products. Fragrances are usually very complex mixtures with dozens of ingredients, including essential oils from flowers or fruits. Each ingredient is assessed by the manufacturer for any health effects.
MYTH 6: The citrus solvent D-limonene, derived from orange peel, is a totally safe solvent
D-limonene, which is the major component of orange-peel oil, is classified as hazardous by Safe Work Australia. It is known to be a skin sensitiser in certain individuals. In many ways, D-limonene is just like a kerosene that has been squeezed from orange skins. Even though it comes from an edible fruit, this liquid is capable of causing irritation and drying of the skin, even when it is only a minor component in the product.
MYTH 7: Green, environmentally friendly detergents are safe to hose into a river
All detergents and soaps are toxic to fish, no matter how ‘green’ they may be. There is a law against allowing any cleaning products to enter a river or creek. Even if they are fully biodegradable, they are still toxic to aquatic life. Pictures of a frog on the label of a cleaning product are totally misleading. Always pour used cleaning solutions down a basin or trough that leads to the sewer. The sewerage treatment works will break down the detergents and the dirt and make it safe for the environment.
The clearing up of common misconceptions continues in part 2: Cleaning industry myths debunked – part 2.
Paul Agar is the chief chemist and joint managing director at Agar Cleaning Systems. Agar graduated from Melbourne University with a Bachelor of Science (Chemistry) in 1975 and subsequently obtained a Diploma of Education. He has over three decades of experience in the formulation, development and manufacture of chemical products for use across a wide range of applications in building care, healthcare, hospitality, laundry, transport and industry. Agar has developed a vast knowledge base in numerous areas of product formulation, including acrylic floor sealer coatings for Australian conditions and the selection of surfactants for detergents to meet high performance and environmental criteria.