How Can I Make A Difference In My Child's School?
A question we hear often at the Savvy Women's Alliance. It's not easy, but it can be done. We see it happen often and when we do, it is worth celebrating. Mesmerized by Janna Said's safer wipes initiative in her school, we are delighted to share her success and approach.
Before Janna had her children, she was an elementary school teacher, educating little people. Her nontoxic journey began when she was pregnant with her first child. She stopped wearing nail polish and stopped cleaning bathrooms at her husband’s insistence. She bought organic milk and eggs. And now her journey has found roots in one of her biggest campaigns yet: a safer wipes initiative. Little things added up. Now, she’s educating adults.
Step One: Learn From JannaIf you’re a parent of an elementary school child, you’re familiar with the teacher wish list that goes home in the Spring for Fall school supplies. On this list are things like disinfectant wipes. If you’re a teacher, you’re grateful for the bags and boxes of wipes that come flooding in. If you’re Janna, or anyone familiar with safer product choices, many of the brands are met with some degree of trepidation because of their harmful ingredients.
Janna did some research and came up with some recommendations for safer wipes. Encouraged by friends who have done something similar, Janna and her friend Kerri Mullen, a biology professor with a special interest in toxicology, presented their recommendation to the principal, the school nurse, and the PTO. The idea was to collaborate with the school and recommend nontoxic wipes for the wish list in Spring 2017.
But come September, bags and boxes of wipes that included ingredients such as synthetic fragrances, ammonium quaternary compounds (LINKING), methylisothiazolinone (a preservative for the water based product, but also a contact allergen and neurotoxin) came in anyway. With the patience of a saint and with Herculean effort, Janna managed to return and replace some of the wipes with nontoxic alternatives, gain the support of the parents, and educate them in the process.
And so, their safer wipes exchange was born.
Step Two: Many Ways To Collaborate
Some of the following ideas are from Janna and Kerri's project and some are lessons learned from our members who worked on other school projects, such as removing styrene trays from cafeterias and starting classroom gardens.
- Understand that working with schools is a long-term project. Administrators have a lot on their desks and move slowly in general. Often, it isn't' because they don't want to create change; it is simply either a budget or human resource barrier.
- Set up a meeting to talk to your child’s principal, school nurse and PTO members. Begin in the Spring – before the wish list for the Fall goes out.
- View the slide presentation that Janna and Kerri delivered to the school principal and nurse.
- Make it easy. Create a list of better-for-students products. Since products vary depending on your location, we suggest Soft Landing's use-this-not-that rundown of wipe brands: How to Choose Safe Cleaning Wipes + 9 Brands to Avoid.
- Even better! Be proactive and ask your PTA/PTO to budget for nontoxic wipes so they can come off of the parent wish list altogether.
- Change takes time. Think of this as an ongoing project that blooms over time, until it finally hits its stride and becomes the norm. Janna and Kerri's efforts took passion and leadership, but the momentum is what will carry it forward.
- Change does happen! With relationships established and working together, change happens. There might be green cleaning parties, book clubs, and endless ideas that evolve from this! Once one school has efforts in place, others fall into line. There are even towns where superintendents made this easy across the board and banned the harmful wipes altogether!
Step Three: Educate
Expect some resistance and stay centered in collaboration, compassion and education.
- The instinct to protect our children is strong and will often appear as resistance. Welcome the discussion in an educational way. Show the evidence. Be patient.
- Make a plan for harmful wipes to be donated.
- Expect that standard disinfecting products will come in, because many people are brand loyal and simply checking items off a list.
- Ask for help from PTO volunteer coordinators or wellness committees to exchange the donated harsher wipes with nontoxic alternatives.
- Work with local retail managers ahead of time. Learn about their policy for exchanges.
Listen for Red Flags of Wipe-Mania Assumptions Listen for signs of the assumption that wipes are an all-purpose magic bullet. The swipe + wipe is not the end-all answer.
Wipe Mania doesn't replace the Golden Rules: Wash Your Hands + Cover Your Mouth. When it comes to infections and spreading of germs, THIS is the frontline. We say it, but is practiced? How often do you imagine children wash hands (singing the ABC's) during a six-, eight or 10-hour school day?
- Best: Soap and warm water.
- Next Best: alcohol based sanitizers.
- Avoid: Soap and sanitizers with Triclosan.
When Wiping Is Just Swiping. Cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing are separate actions, separate goals and part of full process. (How tempting it is to write, "No Swiping Swiper!" but we are more of the positive kind of crew here.)
- Cleaning is what we do often as maintenance. Soap and water, scrub, dry.
- Disinfecting requires time to kills microorganisms (aka infections.) Take a challenge and read the directions of the products you use now. How long does it require to be effective? How often do we really follow through? Are you supposed to keep wet wipes covering the surface for four, eight or even 10 minutes to be effective?
Fun Fact: Disinfectants and sanitizers fall under the EPAs Federal Insecticide Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. We are using the ingredients within wipes with the intent to destroy. They are toxic by intent. The conundrum becomes what is the most effective product while choosing the least harmful option to humans? In addition, overuse of disinfectants can breed superbugs.
This is why reading directions, training and using products at the right dilution rate and circumstances is imperative. The Healthy Schools Campaign explains:
"Disinfectants and sanitizers are designed to kill microorganisms on high-risk, non-porous surfaces, such as tables, doorknobs, bathrooms and keyboards. In a truly green cleaning program, the use of disinfectants is only the final step in infection control."
Chances are your School Administration is well-schooled in this topic and has a Green Cleaning Program in place. This might be one of the first questions you ask when setting up the meeting. What is the plan? If there is one in place, how do we educate teachers? The PTA? The Wellness Committee? And of course, enlighten parents.
"But Bleach Is Best!"
The emotionally fueled rebuttal you might receive is that bleach is the only option. The Healthy Schools Campaign Infection Control paper succinctly summarizes:
For years, chlorine bleach was the disinfectant of choice in schools because it is relatively inexpensive, readily available, and effective. Many of us grew up associating the smell of clean with chlorine bleach and think that if it doesn’t smell like bleach, it isn’t clean. Yet almost everyone who has used chlorine bleach is familiar with the hazards. Its caustic properties erode surfaces and burn the skin and eyes. Mixing chlorine bleach with other chemicals can create a toxic gas that in the past has caused schools to close and sent students to the hospital. If regulation does not require the use of bleach, consider alternative disinfectants with active ingredients such as hydrogen peroxide, citric acid or lactic acid.
Yes, it Starts with the Little Things.
What the children in these cleaner classrooms absorb, in more ways than one, they’ll carry with them. With this kind of example and determination, they’ll be reaching for nontoxic products when they shop one day too.
It doesn't stop there. We are delighted to announce that since Janna and Kerri initiated this effort in their school, they have also launched the Savvy Women's Alliance Chapter of Holliston, MA. Finding a like-minded tribe of those learning about choosing wiser is deeply gratifying. If you are in the area and would like to join in on their events, drop your name on the link and we will connect you!
Interested in the power of what can be done in your hometown? Explore Savvy's chapter concept: