Campus / News / January 17, 2018

Cleaning chemicals worry student worker

Information from the Material Safety Data Sheets for the chemicals listed. (Graphic by Michelle Dudley/TKS)

Freshman Esteban Lopez felt his hand start to burn after cleaning a water fountain with Betco Stix during his janitorial shift at Raub-Sellew.

“I look over at it and it’s burning my hand through the glove,” Lopez said.

The chemical is labeled as being corrosive to skin in its safety data sheet (SDS). It can also cause damage if it gets into the eyes. In his job as custodial staff last term, Lopez used it everyday to clean water fountains.

Lopez experienced problems with Spartan Chemicals’ HDQ Neutral as well. It is used as an aerosol and Lopez said he sometimes experienced five to ten minutes of lung irritation after applying it.

“HDQ is used for everything, so that’s an everyday [chemical],” Lopez said. “Betco Stix is also used almost every day. The glass cleaner, every day.”

According to Lopez, HDQ Neutral is also used on water fountains, as well as for mopping the floor, cleaning stair rails and the lockers in the gym.

“From what I hear, that’s extremely normal for these chemicals,” Lopez said.

Some chemicals such as Betco Super Kemite have more specific uses, such as cleaning showers, and are therefore not used by student workers. However, Lopez said he had heard other stories about those chemicals causing problems for people who used them.

Lopez took an opportunity in his ENVS 101: Intro to Environmental Studies class to look at the problem further. Working with freshman Prii Gurung, he looked into the chemicals that he and other members of building services often used. They then gave a presentation to the class that introduced the problems and suggested possible solutions.

“Personally, I felt like it was so dangerous to use the chemicals and [Lopez] experienced it and it was quite scary,” Gurung said.

Their project concluded by calling for the use of hazardous chemicals to be reduced and possibly replaced with other chemicals which do not require as much safety equipment and are more environmentally friendly. They also saw a need for increased access to safety equipment like respiration masks.

Sophmore Ben Rutter was in the Environmental Studies class with Lopez and Gurung.

“I’ll continue to drink the water with the knowledge that there’s chemicals in there, but there’s something to be said for a positive change in a more environmentally friendly direction,” Rutter said.

Lopez and Gurung acknowledged in their presenation that the issue would not be solved easily given the effectiveness of the chemicals in use.

“I don’t know the feasibility of [replacing the chemicals] because there’s so many surfaces they as a groundskeeping staff need to maintain,” Rutter said.

Their project included some recommendations for other chemical brands to look at, including Seventh Generation and Biokleen. Lopez noted that he has seen environmentally friendly cleaners stored somewhere on campus.

“I’d definitely like to see safer [chemicals], but I think even further than that I would really love to see an improvement in how much Knox actually cares about the people working for them,” Lopez said. “I mean, the fact that these have been in use so long, to me, kind of signifies that Knox is kind of just blowing off this issue, ‘so what if they’re dangerous, they work.’ I would love to see more of an orientation of the governmental body towards the caring and the safety of the employees.”

Connor Wood, Editor-in-Chief
Connor Wood is a senior with a double major in English Literature and Environmental Studies. He started as a volunteer writer and then staff writer his freshman year and was a news editor his sophomore and junior years. He has also worked as a communications intern for the Aldo Leopold Nature Center and as an intern with Unified News Group, both in the Madison, WI, suburbs.

Tags:  chemicals cleaning environment facilities services health janitorial staff

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