Janitors seek ban on toxic cleaners used by supermarkets

by Alex Salkever, AOL Daily Finance

Venture into a supermarket late at night and you’re likely to see an employee running a machine used to clean, strip and wax floors. Wander into your local deli and you’ll see workers pouring disinfectant over the day’s feast.

But ask these workers how they feel and many will confess to cases of headaches, sinus infections, and skin rashes. Which is why janitors and cleaners from the Service Employee International Union have been holding protests outside large grocery stores — such as Lucky and Safeway (SWY) in Northern California — to demand that the country’s largest supermarket chains ditch toxic cleaning agents and go with greener alternatives.

The service workers contend that toxic chemicals used in cleaning supplies are environmental and health hazards. The SEIU is pushing hard on this issue in California, where the state government is perceived to be among the most responsive to green issues. The union has sponsored a bill introduced by California State Senator Fran Pavley that would force supermarkets to assess the toxicity of the commercial cleaning products they use.

The assessments would look at whether the products might sicken workers or contaminate food that shoppers buy and eat. The Consumer Federation of California has co-sponsored the bill with the SEIU. If passed, the bill could result in national changes to supermarket cleaning processes, due to California’s large size and position as an environmental front-runner.

Walmart Requires Environmental Assessments

WalMart (WMT), as I reported on earlier, has already made considerable waves in this area by demanding that its suppliers provide a detailed environmental assessment of products sold in WalMart stores. And a number of environmental and public health advocacy groups are agitating loudly for more regulation of household cleaning products that may contain toxic products. Unlike makers of food products, manufacturers of cleaning and beauty products are not required to disclose or label ingredients.

Chemicals commonly found in cleaning products are allegedly tied to many human health problems. One such chemical is 2-butoxyethanol, a sweet-smelling, clear solvent found in Windex and other glass cleaners. It’s on a list of hazardous chemicals in California, although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency removed it from a list of hazardous chemicals in 1994.

Many environmental health researchers believe that human exposure is far greater than government agencies understand. People exposed to high levels of 2-butoxyethanol for extended periods claim to have suffered from mucous membrane irritation, vomiting, and headaches.

Another common ingredient in cleaning products is monoethanolamine. Some health advocates claim this chemical can cause rashes, burns, and shortness of breath. Zinc, which is considered a toxic pollutant by the EPA, is often part of the formula for floor-stripping compounds.

Some Manufacturers Developing Non-toxic Lines

Many household cleaner manufacturers, such as Clorox (CLX), have been rapidly rolling out green offerings to consumers. The giant bleach maker has a line called GreenWorks that adheres to environmental standards. Commercial cleaning products companies have also been coming out with their own versions of green products. Some cities, like San Francisco, have implemented programs that emphasize green cleaning products and mandate use of those products in city facilities.

But low-margin private sector companies, like supermarket chains, have been reluctant to swap out traditional cleaning products, both due to the relatively higher prices of these products and fears that the green products will not perform or disinfect as well. In news reports, the chains refused to comment on the issues raised by the janitors.

But it’s safe to say that the public protests have sparked internal debate among the food retailers. The last thing most of them want, of course, is another government mandate from the Governator and his green-happy cohorts in the California State Legislature.