It is commonly known that poor indoor air quality (IAQ) can have adverse effects on our health, but did you also know that how we maintain our hard floors can also impact the air we breathe? As a nation, we spend more than 90% of our time indoors, so it should not come as a surprise that indoor air pollution has been deemed one of the top environmental risks to public health.
Polluted indoor air can cause symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and reduced lung function. One of the key contributors to poor IAQ involves the maintenance of hard floor surfaces.
Adopting a floor care plan that drastically reduces common pollutants can help improve your IAQ significantly and ensure a healthy indoor environment.
CLEANING, DISINFECTING, AND SANITIZING
Dust, mold, pathogens, and high amounts of volatile organic compounds (Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. They include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have sho... More) emitted by floor chemicals negatively impact IAQ. This is especially true for harsh chemicals such as disinfectants and cleaners.
Interestingly, some of the highest percentages of VOCs in “green products” are present in fragrances (such as limonene, a terpene) that are added to impart a pleasant scent. A study conducted in Melbourne, Australia by Professor of Civil Engineering Anne Steinemann found limonene in 11 of the 13 “green” products tested.
Unfortunately, facility employees who are subjected to long-term, repeated exposure to fragrances, can experience serious respiratory health issues.
You can safeguard IAQ indoors while cleaning by adopting the following practices:
- Use cleaners, disinfectants, and sanitizers that meet the US EPA’s “Safer Choice” standard, but make sure to read the safety data sheets and scan for harmful chemicals such as limonene, ethanol, pinenes, and acetaldehyde.
- Ventilate spaces whenever possible while cleaning to help dissipate any strong smells.
- If your budget allows, consider investing in a high-quality air purification system that employs the use of HEPA filters.
- Only use the amount of product needed, and rinse surfaces thoroughly with water to remove any residual substances remaining on floors.
- When dusting floors, consider upgrading to commercial hard-floor vacuum cleaners (also equipped with HEPA filters). They are superior to dust mops because they prevent contaminants from being stirred up and released back into the air.
- Discontinue the use of string mops and mop buckets. They are a horrid source of airborne pathogens because they do not adequately clean surfaces and leave behind moisture, providing a perfect environment for bacteria, viruses, and mold to proliferate. Instead, if possible, invest in automatic floor scrubbers. They save time by dispensing the cleaning solution, scrubbing floors, and leaving floors dry. Ensure that auto scrubbers feature easy-to-clean tanks to ensure fresh, clean water is always being used.
- If auto scrubbers or hard-floor vacuum cleaners are not financially feasible, at a minimum use clean microfiber cloths to dust and mop floors for wet and dry cleaning procedures.
MAINTAINING FINISHED FLOORS
When buffing, stripping, and refinishing wax floors, you may find yourself unwillingly exposed to a myriad of unwanted toxic airborne pollutants such as chemical strippers, toxins in acrylic wax finish, and airborne pathogens from buffing. Each of these processes carries its own risks to IAQ and building occupant health.
Whether coated with wax or not, buffing floors contributes to unhealthy IAQ levels because it kicks up enormous amounts of particulate matter in the form of dust, mold, and pathogens. Of the air pollution that is caused by buffing, large particles (PM10) can remain suspended in the air for minutes or hours, while finer inhalable particles (PM2.5) can remain in the air for days or weeks.
These particles pose an even larger threat because they can host disease-causing microbes. This danger is outlined in a report from the CDC (Center for Disease Control) (2019):
A variety of airborne infections in susceptible hosts can result from exposures to clinically significant microorganisms released into the air when environmental reservoirs (i.e., soil, water, dust, and decaying organic matter) are disturbed. Once these materials are brought indoors into a healthcare facility by any of number of vehicles (e.g., people, air currents, water, construction materials, and equipment), the attendant microorganisms can proliferate in various indoor ecological niches and, if subsequently disbursed into the air, serve as a source for airborne healthcare associated infections. (Guidelines for Environmental Infection Control in Healthcare Facilities, p. 20).
Although foot traffic introduces substantial amounts of dust, dirt, and other contaminants to the indoor environment, IAQ is especially threatened when floors are buffed. An experiment that illustrates this issue was conducted at St. Michael-Albertville High School in Minnesota.
An Awair Omni air quality meter was used to record levels of PM2.5 and VOCs in a high-traffic corridor during an entire day, including when halls were empty, while students were milling through the halls during passing time, and when floors were buffed in the evening.
The readings revealed a steep spike in fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and VOCs during the exact time period when floors were being buffed, while levels remained low during the school day (see Figures 1 and 2). It would be easy to assume that foot traffic alone would kick up a notably high amount of PM2.5, but in reality, levels were much lower during that period in comparison to the amount of pollution stirred up by the activity of the buffing machine. Therefore, it can be concluded that buffing floors produces alarmingly unhealthy IAQ levels and is a problem that should be addressed.
Figure 1. The number of fine particulates (PM2.5) spikes dramatically when floors are buffed.
Figure 2. The number of VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) shows a dramatic spike when floors are buffed. Levels remain elevated post-buffing, as well.
STRIPPING AND REFINISHING WAX FLOORS
Typically, when an acrylic wax floor coating program is used, floor wax will wear off and become dull within a surprisingly brief time. This occurs due to foot traffic and resultant debris being tracked in, as well as damage from furniture and machinery.
Therefore, to keep them looking good, surfaces require frequent scrubbing and rewaxing every 3-6 months and stripping (complete removal of wax and disposal of waste) every 1-3 years. Unfortunately, stripping floors is an extremely dirty task, producing a toxic A slurry is a mixture of denser solids suspended in liquid, usually water. In regard to finishing floors, this refers to the wax, wax stripper, and wa... More comprised of a mixture of chemical stripper and water that needs to dwell for about 10 to 15 minutes prior to removal.
During this process, chemical solvents in the stripper are used to break down and emulsify the old wax layers. The result? A toxic mixture of acrylic wax (containing hazardous formaldehyde, nitrobenzene, perchloroethylene, phenol, toluene, and xylene) and wax stripper (containing VOC-laden solvents such as monoethanolamine), which when breathed in as a vapor, can cause headaches, eye irritation, respiratory distress, and other health concerns.
To avoid risks to building occupant health, ensuring proper ventilation and allowing sufficient time for the products to dry and fumes to dissipate before allowing people to occupy the space again is crucial. There are also lower-VOC wax strippers on the market, but many claim that they are not as effective as traditional wax stripper formulas. Because these “green” strippers are less effective, a higher volume of wax stripper and additional labor is required.
Refinishing waxed floors typically involves scrubbing with water to remove the top layer or two of wax, followed by an application of additional layers of wax, which can also release VOCs into the air as it dries. Therefore, providing adequate ventilation during application and drying is again important. Imagine having to repeat these steps every 3 months!
THE BEST ALTERNATIVE TO THE USE OF FLOOR WAX
So, is there a way to maintain great looking floors and preserve indoor air quality? Definitely! For some, it is a challenge to embrace changing from wax to a different type of floor care regimen, but there is a product that dramatically reduces the threat to IAQ and keeps building occupants healthier.
Introducing a groundbreaking thin-film water-based urethane to the floorcare industry has provided a solution to the environmental hazard of poor indoor air quality caused by the aforementioned floor maintenance processes.
In contrast to wax, EPIC® High-Performance Floor Finish does not require ANY BUFFING and just 1 coat lasts 3-5 years, even in high traffic areas. EPIC-coated floors last longer because the finish forms a barrier that effectively resists abrasion, chemical damage, and rapid dulling. Over 10 years, only 2 or 3 recoats of EPIC are required compared to an average of 20-30 recoats of acrylic wax.
Moreover, EPIC does not need to be stripped again once all wax is completely removed prior to application. Therefore, compared to an acrylic wax floorcare program, EPIC significantly reduces the introduction of nasty odors, VOCs, particulates, and pathogens into the air.
Because the EPIC floorcare system yields fewer emissions, your facility may qualify for LEED points and credit toward other accredited third-party green facility certifications. Most importantly, improved IAQ supports employee health, productivity, accessibility, and overall safety. Remember, flooring maintenance doesn't need to compromise indoor air quality (IAQ).
Get a FREE SUSTAINABILITY ROI REPORT comparing these two floorcare programs.
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Steinemann, Anne, et al. “Pandemic Products and Volatile Chemical Emissions.” Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health, vol. 14, no. 1, 2020, pp. 47–53., https://doi.org/10.1007/s11869-020-00912-9.
“Cleaning Products & Indoor Air Quality.” California Air Resources Board, https://ww2.arb.ca.gov/resources/fact-sheets/cleaning-products-indoor-air-quality
“Guidelines for Environmental Infection Control in Healthcare Facilities.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 23 July 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/infectioncontrol/guidelines/environmental/index.html.
“Volatile Organic Compounds' Impact on Indoor Air Quality.” EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/volatile-organic-compounds-impact-indoor-air-quality.