Thursday October 7, 2010

BENNINGTON — A Vermont advocacy group is again seeking the passage of a law that would keep cleaning products that contain toxic chemicals out of schools, after a similar bill failed to move out of the House Education Committee this past legislative session.

The intent, according to the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), is to improve air quality in schools by requiring the use of environmentally friendly cleaning products, which has been required in state government buildings since 2004.

“We want to focus on protecting Vermonters from exposure to toxic chemicals, and that can be through a variety of exposures that can be from toxins in products (such as) cleaning supplies in schools

and pesticide use,” said Charity Carbine, an environmental health advocate for VPIRG. “One of the easiest things and something that wouldn’t cost schools any money to do is change over from conventional cleaning supplies to ‘green,’ or third-party environmentally certified cleaning products.”

Carbine said toxic chemicals often found in cleaning supplies include formaldehyde and chloroform — which can negatively affect human body systems when inhaled.

The House Education Committee heard testimony during the legislative session from representatives of school districts that have used environmentally friendly cleaning supplies and heard varying information on the cost compared to conventional products.

“We took testimony from some school districts and some said it was cost-efficient, some said it was more expensive and it didn’t get the same results,” said Anne Mook, D-Bennington, vice chairwoman of the committee.

Because of the existing financial constraints on school budgets, Mook said the committee didn’t want to create a mandate that could potentially increase costs. “We wanted to encourage individual and voluntary use of products, but we did not want to mandate it,” Mook


Mook said there’s a possibility the committee will draw a different conclusion if the topic is brought up again in 2011, depending on testimony.

“I’d have to listen to what has evolved in a year. There could be new products, new research that has been done on specific products, and I’d like to see those results,” Mook said. “And I’d like to see the results of those school districts that are using it and if it’s cost-efficient for them.”

The state Department of Health didn’t support the green cleaning bill, because the department’s focus is on improving conditions in schools on a broader basis — which Medical Director Dr. Donald Swartz said is more achievable following Act


Also called the Envision: Promoting Healthy School Environments program, Act 125 became law in 2000 and seeks voluntary participation from schools to establish and maintain environmental health management plans.

“Our goal is to improve the school environment overall, and we view some unintended consequences resulting from the bill introduced last year that might significantly reduce access to the Envision program,” Swartz said. “The cooperation approach is going to get us a lot better change in school environments than this one coercive approach.”

Swartz said the health department will remain active in future discussions on the topic and evaluate any future bills dealing with “green” cleaning supplies with an open


Criticized Act 125

Carbine criticized Act 125 for not achieving its intended result of having 50 percent of the state’s schools qualify for an environmental health certificate by 2005; only 7 percent have.

When asked about the use of cleaning supplies used in Arlington’s two schools, Thomas Gallagher, who was hired as interim superintendent of Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union this summer, said he would look into the products used, and said he supports the use of environmentally friendly products.

The topic, he said, hasn’t been on his mind since becoming superintendent, but he said it “should be moved to the front-burner.”

“There are only two major disadvantages when it comes to

environmentally friendly products — one, you need more elbow grease, and they cost more,” Gallagher said. “In my own opinion, that is a small price to pay (compared to) putting carcinogens into our bodies.”

Dating back to the late 1960s when he was a teacher, Gallagher said he’s been aware of the dangers of toxic chemicals and the negative effects they’ve had on experimental lab rats.

“In some cases, the disinfectants cause more harm to the humans and don’t actually kill the bacteria; they move them … and they can cause damage to the reproductive system,” Gallagher said.

Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union administrators could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Across the country, nine states have passed “green” cleaning laws, including New York, Maine and Connecticut in the Northeast.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at