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Working In These Times

Thursday, Nov 5, 2009, 7:16 am

Going for Green: Calif. Janitors Keep Pushing for Safety Standards

BY Rose Arrieta

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As we reported two weeks ago, janitors of SEIU Local 1877 continue to call attention to the need for “green” cleaning standards at Safeway, Lucky’s and Save-Mart supermarkets in Northern California.

The Service Employees International Union has been collecting testimony from workers who say they’ve been affected by the harsh chemicals in the cleaners they use.

In October, Local 1877 proposed that the stores adopt green standards and replace toxic cleaners with environmentally-friendly Green Seal-certified cleaning products, safety training, goggles, masks and gloves to protect workers.

So far, there’s been no movement on the part of supermarkets and their contractors to make the change.

Martha Aragon has worked as a janitor at Safeway in Roseville for the past three years. According to her testimony, she cleans, sweeps, mops and polishes the market floors, Deli and Butcher counters, break rooms, offices and bathrooms by herself.

Aragon says she mixes strong cleaning chemicals with hot water to mop the floor and operate the floor stripper. When she uses these chemicals her sinuses become irritated and her nose starts to run and itch.

Recently she developed a red, itchy rash on her skin while she was using a strong cleaner to wash off hard-to-clean spots. She has no choice but to continue to use this product and now suffers from a skin condition.

“Disinfectants in general have hazardous ingredients in them,” says Chris Geiger, municipal toxics reduction coordinator in San Francisco’s Environment Department.

Chemicals common in some products used to clean supermarkets are known to cause serious human health problems. One example is 2-Butoxyethanol, a carcinogen that causes reproductive, liver and kidney damage. Other cleaners used by janitors contain such chemicals as monoethanolamine, and other compounds that cause rashes, burns, shortness of breath.

Floor strippers are high on the list for toxicity. Fenoxletanol is commonly contained in floor strippers. It can cause reproductive changes including the shrinking of testicles, infertility and changes to the function of kidneys.

Zinc is also commonly used in strippers and is on the EPA’s list of 65 Toxic Pollutants; it appears to affect the male reproductive system.

“Floor strippers are probably the most hazardous product to use by custodians,” says Geiger. The chemicals in strippers “have neuro-toxic effects, make you dizzy,  affect the liver and kidney and … central nervous system.”

Humberto Villa, a janitor at several East Bay Safeway locations, says every time he uses floor strippers, his nose bleeds from inhaling the fumes, his “body feels chilled and breaks out in a cold sweat," and his "hands and eyes feel itchy and burned.”

He also told the SEIU that he has never been given safety training, gloves, masks or goggles.

Said another janitor: “There has to be something safer that we can all use.”

Legislation introduced by California State Senator Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) controls exposure to toxic chemicals. Sponsored by Service Employees International Union and the Consumer Federation of California, the bill would require environmental health regulators to assess health risks associated with the use of commercial cleaning products in supermarkets.

The bill will be heard next in the state's Senate Appropriations Committee.

The City and County of San Francisco have adopted safe and green cleaning standards for their workers. “Our departments require the janitors to have safety equipment, gloves, goggles, masks—especially when mixing a product that can slosh up in your face,” Geiger says.

Aside from the worker health issue, there’s a big environmental issue.

Thousands of gallons of chemicals go down the drain everyday. “They go out in the bay or surface water and some of them are endocrine disrupters.” He adds, “There are a lot of good reasons to move to these more benign products for worker health and environmental health.”

Asks Geiger: “If you can do with a less hazardous chemical that does the job, then why not choose the less hazardous chemical?”

Calls to representatives from Safeway and Lucky’s were not returned by deadline.


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Rose Arrieta was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has worked in print, broadcast and radio, both mainstream and community oriented—including being a former editor of the Bay Area’s independent community bilingual biweekly El Tecolote. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of outlets on social justice issues.

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