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Schools avoid bleach to limit coughing, asthma symptoms

In the classrooms at Academy of Our Saviour, kids eat snacks off gray and royal blue tables. The school, of course, likes to keep them clean.

But the teachers used bleach to make that happen until they noticed it had adverse effects on health, the principal said.

Faculty blamed the bleach for asthma attacks and other pulmonary problems.

"Every time we would bleach tables down, everybody would start coughing," said Jeannelle Gibson, principal of the private preschool and kindergarten in the Town 'N Country area.

Her doubts about the chemical's safety weren't unique.

Paul Tucker, superintendant of plant operations at Academy of the Holy Names in South Tampa, said he uses a very limited amount of bleach to disinfect tables, only because he has yet to find anything that disinfects as well.

And three years ago, the Hillsborough County School District's risk management and safety manager Glen Lathers banned bleach from all public schools in the county.

"Bleach used to be a catchall," Lathers said. It could kill anything.

But Lathers said while there weren't reports of bleach causing health problems in students or faculty members, he decided to ban it during a routine assessment of the products used in schools.

"We really didn't want our employees being exposed to bleach fumes and we didn't want the potential to have leaking bleach bottles throughout the building," he said. "We took stuff out that had the potential to cause hazardous situations."

Now, it is up to the maintenance staff at each school to pick products that aren't bleach, Lathers said.

Dr. Anthony Kriseman, a pediatric pulmonologist at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, said there is a reason that some people cough or have other side effects around bleach.

"Anything that's going to leave some residue in the air can be an irritant," he said. "We advise parents to avoid exposure to plug-in air fresheners, scented candles, household cleaning products."

Exposure can cause wheezing in people who already have "wheezy illnesses," Kriseman said. "If you walked into a room with a very powerful odor of bleach in it, you would probably cough."

If you are going to use bleach, he said, use it in a well-ventilated area.

Or, like Gibson, find a cleaning alternative. At first, efforts to replace the bleach were slow to progress. It was easy to find chemicals that disinfect as well as bleach, but it was hard, Gibson said, to find anything any less caustic.

The search led her to a natural disinfectant made by Baby Girl Cleaning Products. She came across the local company at a school fair, where representatives from schools and businesses set up promotional booths.

It comes in two spray bottles connected by Velcro — a white one for vinegar and a black one for hydrogen peroxide — and is produced locally by stay-at-home-mom Sarapage Bauguss, who lives in Land O'Lakes. Academy of Our Saviour uses it now instead of bleach.

In an effort to avoid using mainstream cleaning products, which she says contain carcinogens, Bauguss developed the line of natural ones, including the disinfectant.

Bauguss' combination of hydrogen peroxide and vinegar does kill some bacteria, said Susan Sumner, an Institute of Food technologist and food science communicator at Virginia Tech.

In the 1990s, Sumner studied the effects of hydrogen peroxide and vinegar on bacteria versus the effects of bleach.

"What we find is that bleach has a couple advantages," she said. "It always has the best ability to kill the most organisms."

Bauguss' concoction will sanitize a surface as long as you first wipe it clean of visible dirt, food and grime, Sumner said. The results of her research prove that it kills salmonella, shigella and E. coli.

Nothing in her research says the combination would kill viruses, but "both these agents have abilities to kill bacteria," Sumner said. "They are effective."

And, Gibson said, using them doesn't aggravate asthma or allergies.

Since introducing the alternative at the school, said Gibson, "I have not had one child or staff (member) begin an asthma attack."

She can vouch for that firsthand.

"I'm one that has asthma and every time we would use bleach, I'd have to leave the building," she said. "I don't have to leave anymore."

Arleen Spenceley can be reached at (813) 909-4617 or aspenceley@sptimes.com.

Schools avoid bleach to limit coughing, asthma symptoms 12/03/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 3, 2009 3:30am]

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