Mops splashed against the wooden floor, while a spray bottle squirted clear liquid to the corners of the bathroom sink.
Through the halls vacuums hummed. The strong aroma of vinegar lingered inside the house. Two workers of Green Maid Today, a small local North Bay commercial green cleaning company, exhibited how a home can be efficiently cleaned without the usual chemical arsenal.
This was the house of their employer so of course things were done right, Elva Aguilar, owner of Green Maid Today, who opened up her home for a reporter, as a demonstration site for the environmentally conscious cleaning services she offers in El Cerrito, El Sobrante, Pinole and Albany.
An El Salvador book lay on the table, a Frida Kahlo poster hung on the wall, and cleaning supplies were scattered on the floor. As Aguilar describes her work, it’s clear she views it as more than a way to make a living, or even achieving a sustainability. She depicts a personal mission that addresses the neglect of workers and her own health.
Before starting the business, she worked as a maid for corporate cleaning companies in the Bay Area. Aguilar worked with the common cleaning agents, but like some cleaning workers she began to notice a decline in her health.
Interviewed while she sat in her living room, Aguilar pointed to her throat and back recalling her first symptoms. Her initial response to the pain in her back was to visit the chiropractor.
But she found no answers. Doctors couldn’t connect her conditions to any real illness. She became convinced it was the tools of her trade.
“When I started I didn’t know what I was using to work,” Aguilar said. “The cleaning supplies were killing me.”
Some rare public attention has been aimed lately at working conditions of those who clean for a living, through campaigns like SEIU’s “Justice for Janitors” and the documentary “Rape on the Night Shift.” At the same time, a new wave of scientific research is underway.
Aguilar decided to make her own study, learning all she could about the toxins and chemicals included in cleaning products. She attended health fairs and joined a group called Women’s Voices of the Earth. She became convinced that cleaning work posed health risks, some of which might be reduced if better tools were being used. Eventually, Aguilar said, she discovered a safer way to clean by using alternative green products and bare ingredients.
Her go-tos were sitting on a table near the kitchen—common household items like vinegar, which she uses along with a razor to remove grease buildup. Instead of relying on chemical bleach and acids, she favors using warm water and soaking longer.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor of Statistics reports there were nearly 103,000 maids and cleaners in California as of 2015, ranking California the largest state for the cleaning industry. Based on data for janitors and cleaners in local government, the rate of illnesses and injuries increased to 657.4 cases per 10,000 workers in 2015 from 434 cases in 2014.
Traditional cleaning products contain ingredients like 2-butoxyethanol, quaternary ammonium compounds, glutar- aldehyde, and ethanolamines. Over-exposure to these ingredients can cause skin irritation, breathing trouble and muscular aches, according to studies, and could also be dangerous to the eyes and mouth if ingested internally. Products that contain bleach, ammonia, benzalkonium chloride, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, acetic acid, formaldehyde, and ethanolamines have been linked to concerns about asthma.
Although some believe the remedy to avoid toxins is to use green products, researchers still claim that workers are at risk of becoming ill using any cleaning products if they are not aware of the ingredients.
Alexandra Scranton, the director of science and research at the Women’s Voices of the Earth, an organization that informs women about health risks involved in cosmetics and household products, said that beyond the chemicals listed on the bottles, there are numerous ingredients used behind the scenes.
“There can be over a hundred chemicals in the fragrance,” Scranton said. “And you don’t know what is in the fragrance. Some of the chemicals are incredibly dangerous, they can cause cancers and trigger migraines. Triclocen its particularly persistent chemical that hangs around in the environment. Quats [quaternary ammonia] are another very antibacterial chemical, links to causing asthma, problematic to cleaning workers.”
Chemicals entering the bloodstream can reach the liver, kidneys, heart, nervous system and reproductive system, according to a report by CAL/OSHA,the state workplace-safety agency. Common health complaints include dizziness, headache, nausea, tiredness and irritability. Although research has yet to prove a clear link to workplace exposure to chemicals, there’s plenty of evidence to raise suspicions among health experts.
A recent study sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health investigated the safety and effectiveness of increased exposure of new environmentally friendly cleaning products compared with increased exposure of traditional cleaning products, like disinfectants. In a previous study, done in 2012, custodians had complained they had to work harder to get the same job done when using less effective green products causing the cleaning workers more backaches.
Compared with traditional cleaning products, environmentally friendly alternatives sometimes can eliminate chemicals considered harmful, or which can cause skin irritation. The new study looked at cleaning products for restrooms, carpets and general purposes, used by 329 custodians from a local union in Connecticut. A labor-based advocacy organization and state agencies participated.
When using green products, all health symptoms were reported less frequently, researchers reported. However, they stated that some of those who were using green products also reported back and lower musculoskeletal pains, suggesting that some green products could also contain hazardous chemicals.
The survey data showed that stated that 42 percent of custodians had upper respiratory problems, a little more than a third had muscle pain in the arms or legs, 26 percent reported respiratory issues, 4 percent had breathing troubles, and 13 percent complained of skin trouble after increased exposure to traditional cleaning products.
Despite reports that it took more work using green products, researchers found there were few associations linking serious health risks and specific green products in comparison to traditional products. But there were reports of back pain associated with green products.
Compared with other occupations, custodians appear to be at higher risk of developing symptoms involving skin, breathing and muscle problems.
Due to the physical demanding work of repetitive movements of the arms and hands, researchers reported that musculoskeletal symptoms can be developed no matter what products are being used. They said that some new cleaning technologies using microfibers and steamers are being developed to reduce the work load, but other solutions—including a change in products—may be needed to reduce all symptoms.
Aguilar recalls her own muscle aches when she was working with the standard tools and chemical cleaners.
“Living was a painful thing,” she said.
Aguilar and her daughter came to the United States from El Salvador 16 years ago. Her passion seeped through her voice as she spoke about her love for her only child, Daniela Cardona, who is now attending the University of San Francisco.
Despite having been an educated woman working as an executive secretary in El Salvador, she wound up in the cleaning business after a friend told her that cleaning houses is “what Latinas do in this country.”
Like many workers, Aguilar was unaware of risks due to daily exposure to the harsh chemicals found in cleaning products.
Now, she and some health researchers in California are actively working to pass laws requiring labels that give full disclosure of all ingredients used in cleaning products, which they hope will encourage use of healthier alternatives.
In 2009 Aguilar decided to start her own business in the cleaning industry and use only green products.
As she spoke, two workers of Green Maid Today vacuumed the house, scrubbed the sinks and wiped the counters to show a visitor their usual cleaning regimen.
Aguilar employs the same workers she started with, and said everybody makes it a point to stay healthy.
“They don’t’ suffer from headaches, a burning nose, skin rashes, and they sleep and rest just like everybody else. When they used to use cleaning toxics they suffered insomnia,” Aguilar said.
Carmen Reyes, the manager and cleaner technician of Green Maid Today, said that the business helps her keep a sustainable lifestyle. “I like the idea of commitment to minimize pollution as well as water contamination,” she said.
In 2009 California was one of four states to implement legislation that required schools to have green cleaning programs.
A California Department of Public Health program called Work Related Asthma Prevention using federal funds, surveys schools and conducts tests, trying to reduce exposure to possible toxic chemicals used by school custodians.
Recent public health data has shown clear links between use of cleaning agents and asthma issues for workers. Today more than 8,300 cases of work-related asthma have been confirmed in California since the surveillance program began in 2009, representing a large variety of occupations, industries and exposures. It includes cases of new asthma in people who didn’t previously have it, as well as worse symptoms in people who had asthma before they started their job.
Based on telephone surveys done in California, state researchers estimate that there are about 1 million people in California with current symptoms of asthma, and whose asthma was either caused or made worse by their work.
State Public Health Department surveys show 12 percent of asthma in janitors appeared to be work-related, nearly double the rate for the overall workforce.
Greener methods may not be the only path to improving health and safety of cleaning workers
“I think it’s a good model, but it’s not everyone’s model,” Helen Chun, the coordinator of public programs at the UC Berkeley Labor Center of Health, said during an interview.
In 2012, the center held a roundtable with janitors and worker representatives of the cleaning industry to discuss these issues. Chun said one problem is a culture of acquiescence: There isn’t enough pressure from workers on companies to change their products.
“They don’t want to rock the boat. If they are immigrant and they are undocumented they don’t want to risk retaliation,” she said.
Chun said that workers sometimes express frustration about their work being undervalued.
“They were saying that green cleaning isn’t just for the wealthy,” said Chun. “It’s a group of workers that are really underrepresented and under-examined. There have been some studies, but certainly not enough to address the clear hazards to what they are being exposed to.”
California regulations require that workers receive safe-cleaning training in a manner that they understand. CAL/OSHA has even offered guidance to help managers explain to workers how to properly work with these chemicals. But because many of the workers in California employed in the cleaning industry are immigrants, there are also language barriers. Though some companies have bilingual translators, language and cultural competency remain obstacles.
Aguilar specializes in house cleaning. In restaurants, schools, and office buildings stronger chemicals found in more traditional cleaners may be more effective and take a short amount of time.
Last year, Aguilar joined the Women’s Voices of the Earth in backing AB 708, a bill that would require fragrances to be listed on product labels. Facing business opposition, partly on grounds that trade secrets were at risk, the bill has yet to pass.
Corporate companies stated that full disclosure goes against their rights as manufacturers, whether it be green or traditional products.
Kristen Power, vice president of state affairs at Consumer Specialty Products Association, representing companies opposed to the bill, said it was “important to balance the need to protect proprietary and confidential business information while providing meaningful product ingredient information to consumers.”
Some health researchers remain adamant about the need for tougher labeling. “If we are disclosing ingredients on food why are we not disclosing on cleaning products?” Scranton said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has created a list of safer chemical ingredients picked out by the Safe Choice Program. Some ingredients include: Citric acid, anhydrous, Sodium citrate, dehydrate, Sodium gluconate, Tetrasodium N,N-bis(carboxylatomethyl)-L-glutamate, and Potassium citrate, monohydrate.
As Aguilar and her two assistants finished their work, they packed up Lady’s Choice Distilled White Vinegar, Sal Suds Bio Degradable Cleaner, and Melamagic Heavy-Duty Cleaner. Then Aguilar walked out the front door of her house and waved goodbye to her workers as they drove off in their hybrid car with Green Maid Today labeled on the trunk.