Green Cleaning Options Reduce Toxins in Fitness Facilities

Green cleaning options can help reduce toxins in your fitness facility, and keep members and employees healthier.

Why clean green? Protecting the environment is the obvious answer, but a more pressing concern is the health of your employees and members. Take a look at your cleaning supply closet. Do the words "danger," "warning" or "hazardous" jump out at you? Do the instructions printed on the containers say to wear protective goggles and gloves when using the product? Do you have the local Poison Control hotline number posted by the front desk phone? If so, it may be time to re-evaluate the choices your fitness center is making when it comes to cleaning supplies.

Protect humans

Many traditional cleaners - particularly industrial-strength cleaners - contain toxic chemicals that can impair the body's immune system, or cause blindness, liver or kidney damage, or even cancer. Of course, not everyone will develop a life-threatening illness after being exposed to toxins while cleaning (or using) locker rooms. Genetics plays a large part in how sensitive a person is to chemicals. Thanks to their DNA, some people are affected by chemicals more than others. However, even if someone isn't immediately affected by exposure to toxins, there may be a harmful cumulative effect. For some people, high exposure over a short period of time may allow enough of the toxin to accumulate in their system to affect their health. For others, accumulation may occur in very small doses over a long period of time.

Exposure to some toxins can have other effects on the body, such as weakening the immune system, increasing the risk of illness and disease, triggering a chemical allergy or creating hypersensitivity after an initial allergic response to a chemical. Some cleaners can cause rashes, eye irritation, allergic asthma or even lung disease. Sometimes a person's sensitivity to a chemical isn't immediately apparent, and very small exposures can cause severe responses to the chemical in the future.

"Some toxins found in cleaning products act as endocrine disruptors, mimicking or [dissipating] hormones necessary in human development," states the Dear Sister Safety column in Our Times, an independent Canadian labor magazine. "Typical endocrine disruptors found in cleaning products are chemicals known as ethoxylated nonyl phenols, which are frequently used in commercial laundry detergents. Another common ingredient used in cleaning products is 2-butoxyethanol, a toxin suspected of causing learning disabilities in children, as well as liver and kidney damage. This chemical can be absorbed directly through the skin."

People can have less serious - but no less annoying - reactions to chemicals. Making the switch from traditional cleaning products to eco-friendly versions was, at first, a personal choice for Linda Bingham, owner of Fast Fitness of Oracle, Ariz. "The chemicals in so many products were causing headaches for me personally," she explains. "I also realized that many women have the same issues with chemicals, either creating headaches or causing breathing difficulties."

Co-owner Bonnie Cueman uses green cleaning products in her six-year-old Curves of Northampton, Mass., facility to help alleviate irritation to members with allergies. "We are constantly cleaning the seats of the machines. In our all-women facilities, women particularly like very clean machines and [a clean] atmosphere in general," says Cueman. "So, since we were cleaning a lot, we wanted to use products we could be confident were safe to breathe and touch, etc. They contain all-natural and safe ingredients, and the scent does not irritate our members who have allergies."

Fight pollution

In addition to the possible negative effects on human health, toxins in cleaners can also pollute the environment. With so many buzzwords floating around to describe efforts at making a positive impact on the world - like "green" and "eco-friendly" - the original word that inspired an environmental call to action seems to have been forgotten: pollution. Perhaps it's fallen out of the eco-vernacular because it makes people think of dirt and sludge and acid rain, rather than fields of grass and well-hugged trees, but pollution is still the most dramatic way fitness facilities affect the environment - starting with cleaning products.

The potential harm wrought by toxic chemicals in cleaning products extends beyond the walls of your facility. Cleaning solutions that flow down sink and shower drains, or are flushed down toilets, go into sewage lines and then into rivers and oceans - or even back into the water supply (along with, unfortunately, antibiotics, anti-convulsants and other discarded pharmaceuticals).

It's true that most industrial-strength products require dilution before use - and are even further diluted when washed into sewer systems - but that doesn't negate their harmful effects. "Many people argue that 'dilution' is the solution to pollution," says Our Times. "They claim that by the time toxins in cleaning products have been diluted in the sewage system and the receiving waters, they have been rendered harmless. But that isn't true in the case of persistent chemicals. The answer is to eliminate pollution at its source. And one of the sources may be in your bucket."

Take action

Switching to green cleaners is one way your fitness center can limit its pollution. To find cleaning products that will minimize both air and water pollution, look for products that meet the Ecologo Green Seal standards. "Green Seal Certification ensures that a product meets rigorous, science-based environmental leadership standards," says the Green Seal website. "This gives manufacturers the assurance to back up their claims, and purchasers confidence that certified products are better for human health and the environment." At, you can find lists of approved cleaning products, hand cleaners, floor care products and cleaning services. The standards don't promise the products will inflict no harm on the environment, but, rather, that there will be decreased harm. Also, the Green Seal Certification does not address the products' effects on human health. Remember that the environmentally friendly cleaning industry is still relatively new; therefore, some products that may meet Green Seal Certification standards may not yet have been evaluated.

More information for green cleaners is provided on the Janitorial Products Pollution Prevention Program (JP4) website at JP4 suggests that concerned janitorial workers read labels, and avoid products that contain the words "danger," "poison" or "warning." It also recommends placing a call to the cleaning product's customer service line to ask if the product contains hazardous ingredients that may harm users. The product's customer service staff can also send out a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for the cleaner. "This sheet explains what is in the cleaner, how these ingredients might harm you, and how to protect yourself while using it," says JP4. "Many companies also have MSDSs on their website."

If you contract cleaning services, you can still take steps to keep toxic chemicals out of your fitness center. In requests for proposals, list ingredients that should not be contained in any cleaning products used in your facility. There are also companies now that specifically advertise as eco-friendly cleaning services.

Tell members

Replacing your cleaning products with environmentally friendly alternatives can do as much good for your fitness center's image as it can for the environment. After all, members and employees deserve a break from the toxins they're exposed to in so many other public places, and that's worth broadcasting. "We publicized our use of these products, and found that members really appreciated the safe and environmentally friendly aspect [of our facility]," says Bob Cueman, co-owner of Curves of Northampton. Bingham agrees, and the eco-friendly cleaners she uses in her fitness center are a part of her pitch to clients."I tell all members at orientation that the cleaning products, hand soap, lotions, etc., are all non-toxic," she says. "My members definitely are concerned about their physical well-being. The clean air they breathe and the things they touch are very important to them. They comment daily on how environmentally safe they feel while working out."

Consider adopting a policy that specifies that your facility will select cleaning products that are scent-free and the least harmful to the environment. Then issue a press release, post a notice on your fitness center's bulletin board, send a mass email - do whatever it takes to let the world know you are committed to helping create a healthy environment for your members and employees, both inside and outside the fitness center.

Take care

Once your facility is in the eco-cleaning business, there are still dangers to consider. Just because a product is emblazoned with an environmentally friendly seal or slogan doesn't mean there is no risk involved in using it. "Even less-toxic ingredients can be harmful if they're not handled properly," warns Our Times. "Safe handling practices are very important in dealing with any chemical substances." Safety measures should be in place for all cleaning procedures, no matter how eco-friendly they are.

Change is never easy, but the benefits of eco-cleaning are too important to be ignored. Changing the way you clean your facility and equipment can make a difference to your members, your environment and your health. Why not clean green?

Dear Sister Safety. Our Times. Toronto, Ont., Canada: October/November 2004. Accessed July 17 at
Donn, J., M. Mendoza and J. Pritchard. AP Probe Finds Drugs in Drinking Water. Associated Press. March 9, 2008. Accessed July 17 at
Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia. Guide to Less Toxic Products. Accessed July 17 at
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