Working with early learners can be a messy job. Between paint, yogurt and runny noses, teachers are in an endless cycle of scrubbing and sanitizing. ECE professionals also see many different illnesses throughout the year, many of which can quickly and easily spread from one child to another.
Cleaning is a vital part of managing a safe and healthy learning environment. To stay healthy and prevent the spread of illnesses, we want our spaces to be not only properly cleaned and sanitized, but also safe and free of hazardous chemicals.
The Importance of Safe Cleaning Practices for Children
The Green Cleaning Toolkit for Early Care and Education, a guide to safe cleaning in early childhood centers developed by a team of public health professionals, health educators, and nurses, points out that many products used to clean and disinfect actually contain chemicals that are toxic and unsafe for children.
Young children are especially vulnerable when exposed to these chemicals in the physical environment. According to Moms Clean Air Force, “babies take a breath about 40 times per minute, while adults breathe 12-20 times per minute. Children don’t just breathe more rapidly, they also literally breathe more air than adults. Children have a larger lung surface area in proportion to their weight than adults. They breathe 50% more air in proportion to their weight than adults. These amazing organs are working especially hard to help our children grow and thrive. Children also exercise more and spend more time outside compared to adults.” Additionally, children stick objects in their mouths to explore them and spend a lot of time on the ground crawling and playing, where harmful chemicals collect. This means that they take in a large amount of toxins when they are present.
Many toxic cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting products can also irritate the lungs, and can trigger or even cause asthma. Using safe cleaning practices can remove allergens, asthma triggers, bacteria and germs from the environment to keep children healthy and ready to learn.
Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting
Cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting are all actually different processes and should be used at different times. The specific definitions of cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting listed below are based on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines and a summary from California Child Health Program (CCHP).
Cleaning is the process that physically removes debris from a surface or area by scrubbing, washing and rinsing. It can be accomplished with soap or detergent, and water. Proper cleaning must always be completed before sanitizing because dirt can prevent disinfectants from working successfully.
Sanitizing refers to the use of any product that kills 99.9% germs, as identified on its label. In child care settings, sanitizing will help to reduce the risk of children becoming ill from contact with the particular surface or object.
Sanitizers should be used on surfaces where food is served or prepared, and on mouthed objects, including toys and pacifiers.
Disinfecting refers to the use of any product that kills nearly 100% of germs, as identified on its label.
Disinfecting is recommended for blood spills to decrease the risk of spreading bloodborne illness; for use on changing tables, bathroom sinks and toilets; and on high-risk areas that collect a lot of germs, such as doorknobs, cabinet handles, and drinking fountains. Disinfectants do not necessarily clean surfaces. Germs can hide under dirt and grime and are not affected by them, so it is always important to clean prior to disinfecting.
Choosing Safe and Healthy Products
The Green Cleaning Toolkit shares that labels such as “natural,” “nontoxic,” or “green” are not regulated by the government; and research has shown that many of these products actually contain unhealthy chemicals.
To ensure that the cleaning products you are using are environmentally safe, look for certifications by third-party organizations, including Green Seal, EcoLogo or Design for the Environment. It is important to note, however, that cleaners certified as environmentally preferable are not also guaranteed to be effective at sanitizing and killing germs. For sanitizing and disinfecting products, you will want to look for products that have a registration number from the EPA on their packaging. If a product is not registered as a sanitizer or disinfectant with the EPA, it can only be relied on for cleaning and not for killing germs, but as California Child Health Program (CCHP) explains, using environmentally friendly products does not mean accepting a lower standard for sanitization. Many teachers choose to use Seventh Generation or Method products for their classroom. Both have cleaning and disinfecting products that are registered with the EPA. See the image below for an example of an EPA registration number, displayed in this case on one of Method’s antibacterial all-purpose cleaning products.
Safe Use and Storage of Products
Healthy Children warns that it is important to exercise caution around the use of cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing products and to always store them in a safe, secure location.
All products should remain in their original labeled containers and should be kept in places that are inaccessible to children.
Cleaning products should never be sprayed when children are nearby, to avoid inhalation or exposure to skin and eyes.
When using products that are fragranced or have an odor, open windows and doors (if weather permits) to allow fresh air flow and to keep the smells from being trapped in the room.
Prior to purchasing or using any products, carefully read the label and safety data sheet