Mishaps and tragedies regarding chemical cleaning solutions are impacting on the industry’s reputation, says Ann Laffeaty. But what can be done to change this? And is the public’s perception of chemical cleaners entirely accurate at a time when many products are safer and more eco-friendly than ever?
Earlier this year, a cleaning chemical spill at a UK hospital resulted in a major clean-up operation in which the emergency services had to be called.
Police officers, fire engines and a decontamination unit were sent to Watford General Hospital after the spill occurred in a maternity unit. The area was cleaned up by firefighters wearing breathing equipment and the area was ventilated to ensure that it was safe.
Also this winter, a tragic chain of events at a California care home led to a care worker being charged with felony elder abuse. A 94-year-old resident of Atria Walnut Creek mistakenly drank a cleaning solution which had been poured into a jug and set down on the breakfast counter by the defendant. Assuming it was juice, an employee subsequently poured it into residents’ drinking glasses – and one of them died as a result.
Chemical cleaners are used safely every day by millions of people all over the globe. Yet these types of stories are constantly coming to light, reminding us of the inherent dangers such products can potentially pose.
Are such press reports helpful? Or do they unfairly damage the reputation of an industry that is becoming safer and more people-friendly all the time?
Damaging reports can actually bring positive results, according to Kärcher’s research and development sales manager Frank Ritscher. “Negative stories about products usually lead to industry players reflecting on the product and improving it where necessary,” he said.
Cleaning agents essential
However, safety issues are becoming rarer all the time, he adds. “The chemical industry today is structured completely differently to how it was several decades ago,” he said. “The topics of environment and application safety were not as prominent then as they are nowadays and some critical raw materials that were historically used in large quantities are no longer permitted. And that is a good thing.”
Despite any negative press the industry may receive, cleaning agents are essential for many applications to achieve a good result, he says. But he adds that the term ‘chemical’ can often be misunderstood.
“Everything in the world pertains to chemistry, and many environmentally-friendly products are, in fact, chemicals,” he said. “And natural raw materials can also be hazardous. Orange oil, for example, is a solvent derived from nature that is frequently flagged up as having a high allergy potential as well as for causing environmental hazards.”
There has been a major trend in recent years towards the development of renewable, plant-based raw materials, according to Ritscher. “Natural fats and oils that form a basis for surfactants and solvents such as alcohols are both examples.”
Sustainability is playing an increasingly important role in the industry because compliance with ecological standards is becoming more and more important among professional users.”
Kärcher is working towards raising public awareness of environmentally-friendly products, according to Ritscher. “Our labels and product marketing explicitly point out the naturalness of individual products and we also rely on environmental certifications,” he said. Kärcher’s eco!perform line of cleaning agents for building service contractors has been awarded the EU Ecolabel and the Nordic Swan Ecolabel.
The company attaches great importance to safety and environmental consciousness, said Ritscher. “We also carefully check on any potential hazards that can arise from using our products,” he said. “And we avoid using these ingredients where possible and if we can’t, we draw attention to them.”
Cases of chemical spills, cleaners experiencing breathing difficulties and the accidental ingestion of chemicals are not necessarily isolated incidents according to Brightwell’s product manager Dmitrii Kononov. “While it is true not all incidents involving chemicals are of the same severity or frequency, they are all indications of the potential risks and dangers associated with the use of chemicals,” he said.
“However, many such incidents can be prevented through proper handling, storage and disposal, along with the use of safer alternatives and technologies. And regulations and standards have been put in place to minimise the risks and dangers associated with chemical use.”
He says any incidents involving chemicals should serve as a reminder of the importance of using these products responsibly. But he admits that press reports of such occurrences can potentially damage the industry’s reputation.
“It is important to note not all chemicals are hazardous, however, and that not every incident involving chemicals is the result of faulty products or negligence on the part of the chemical industry,” he said.
Such incidents often occur due to human error or inadequate safety measures rather than a fundamental flaw in the product or the industry as a whole, he says. “Everyone should recognise that the chemical industry plays a vital role in the economy and in the development of new technologies and products that benefit society,” he said.
That being said, the chemical industry needs to take responsibility for the potential risks and hazards its products pose and work towards developing safer alternatives, according to Kononov. “The industry should also do whatever it can to improve safety measures and regulations and to communicate more effectively about the potential risks and benefits of their products to the public,” he said.
While stories about incidents involving chemicals can potentially damage the industry’s reputation, he says it is important to approach these incidents with a nuanced perspective. “The aim should be to work towards improving safety and minimising the risks for all involved,” he said. “And one should note that not all chemicals are hazardous, and that many chemicals are necessary for modern life. They can also provide important benefits such as in the production of medicine, food and other essential products.”
There has been a growing trend towards safer, less toxic and more sustainable chemical products in recent years, he says. “This has been driven by consumer demand, increased regulatory oversight and advances in technology and scientific research,” said Kononov.
“There has also been a push for greater transparency and disclosure about the ingredients in cleaning products, with some companies voluntarily listing their ingredients on their packaging or websites. This has allowed consumers to make more informed choices about the products they use in their homes.”
Brightwell offers a range of dilution systems including EcoMix chemical proportioners which enable chemicals to be diluted safely on site. The EcoShot system provides a controlled amount of chemical at the push of a button while the EcoShot chemical dilution system is designed for use in areas with fluctuating water pressure or no mains connection.
Service provider Cleanology’s head of marketing Kate Lovell agrees with Kononov that cases of chemical spills, cleaners with breathing difficulties and the accidental ingestion of chemicals are not necessarily isolated incidents.
“The use of chemicals comes with big risks, and these need to be correctly monitored and controlled,” she said. “But we still have to use chemicals in some instances – for cleaning hard stone surfaces, for example – since this is the best way of ensuring high-quality results.”
Negative press reports about chemical-related incidents have the potential for damaging the reputation of the industry, she says. “However, these reports could also be perceived as being headline-grabbing accounts in which the facts aren’t always made clear.”
She says some environmental activists could also cause damage to the industry’s reputation. “However, some of them may be misinformed or they could be slanting their argument to further their cause,” she said. “If chemicals are used properly and in conjunction with eco-friendly products, any negative impacts can be minimised and/or contained.”
She claims the public’s perception of chemical products has been influenced by negative media reporting coupled with a lack of detailed factual information. “Sometimes the use of chemicals is the only way of cleaning a surface,” she says. “And chemical products are becoming safer, less toxic and more sustainable while the general awareness of the variety of eco-friendly products out there is growing fast.”
Cleanology reviews all the chemicals it uses to ensure they are as eco-friendly and as sustainably effective as possible, says Lovell. So, what can be done to change the public’s perceptions of chemicals? “Continued enhanced education will help to create a greater product awareness about chemicals and their environmental credentials,” she replies. “And this would greatly improve people’s perceptions.”
Brightwell’s Dmitrii Kononov says there are several strategies the industry can take to change people’s perception of chemicals and promote the use of safer products. “Companies should market safer, more sustainable alternatives to traditional chemical products and use transparent labelling to disclose more information about the ingredients,” he said.
“And product certification and standards will provide assurance to consumers that products are safe, non-toxic, and environmentally friendly.”
Kärcher is working hard to promote awareness of environmentally conscious products, says Frank Ritscher. “Our product marketing explicitly points out the naturalness of individual products and we rely heavily on environmental certifications,” he said. “We also strive to develop products that require no labelling since these set a good example and remind people that good product performance and quality do not automatically require a product to be labelled as a hazardous substance.”