Health hazards and product labels
The school environment hosts many hazardous chemicals that are used for building maintenance and daily cleaning (paints, solvents, fuels, degreasers and lubricants); for the management of green spaces and recreation areas (pesticides, fertilisers and de-icers/salts/sands); or for teaching purposes (laboratory chemicals used or stored in science labs and art supplies such as paints, stains, inks, glazes and photo-processing chemicals). To prevent the exposure of children and school personnel to chemical hazards — including the risk of explosion or fire or accidental ingestion — there are various safety protocols and measures that should be followed when handling and storing chemicals, and product labels generally provide information about these risks, as required by law. These chemicals are generally also very toxic to the environment and other living organisms when improperly discharged into water or soil.
Children and school staff may also be exposed to other chemicals released from indoor materials present either as gaseous airborne compounds or adsorbed on indoor surfaces and onto microscopic airborne or settled particles such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The VOCs in the indoor air are also harmful to the environment: once they move outside they also pollute the ambient air, contributing to the development of ground-level ozone.
Identifying health hazards
There are no specific, worldwide labels that provide detailed information about the health hazards of exposure to chemicals released into the indoor air from indoor sources. Many chemicals are very common in indoor environments and their properties are essential within the scope of their use — such as cleaning products. Nevertheless, in relation to activities such as renovation work (involving paints, flooring, finishing products or the supply of new furniture) and daily cleaning, it would be helpful to know about the health risks of exposure to sustained peaks of high concentrations of chemicals in the indoor air. It is essential to ensure adequate ventilation every day after cleaning, when fresh air will help to dilute the chemicals in the air. However, the best option is to use materials and products that do not emit dangerous substances such as formaldehyde, flame retardants, phthalates, benzene, toluene and irritative synthetic fragrances, or, in general, to use products that emit very small quantities of VOCs or SVOCs. Many of these dangerous substances are banned by EU legislation, especially in relation to construction products, in order to protect consumers’ health from indoor exposure. However, in the case of many VOCs and consumer products the option of producing or purchasing low-emitting materials is basically voluntary for manufacturers and consumers.
Look at the labels!
In response to growing market demand, different kinds of labelling systems have been developed around the world. Despite the trend towards European harmonisation, most of these systems focus on national markets and often require specific tests. They include ecological labelling systems, like the European Ecolabel, which help consumers to choose products and materials that are environmentally friendly throughout their lifecycle, from production to disposal. At the same time, these products contain very small amounts of chemicals, or no chemicals, that are considered dangerous or of particular concern in relation to consumers’ health.
It is therefore important to learn how to read labels, and to remember some simple dos and don’ts, in order to protect both the environment and your health.