Community-Based Project will Research the Impacts of Cleaning Supplies on Latinx Domestic Workers

Erik Kantar

[email protected]

Queens College, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Make The Road NY, are collaborating on the Safe & Just Cleaning/Limpieza Sana y Justa Project––a five year, community-based participatory research study on the health implications of cleaning product usage among domestic cleaners. Around 400 immigrants of Latinx descent are the subjects of surveyal and will be given a $30 gift card for participation. 

According to the Economic Policy Institute, domestic workers are much more likely to live in poverty compared to those in other industries––leaving themselves vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Because they typically aren’t granted formal contracts, only 12 percent of domestic workers receive health insurance, compared to 51 percent in other occupations. Even according to New York State labor laws, employers aren’t required to provide health insurance to domestic workers. Lack of health insurance, coupled with harmful chemical products, only serve to create a potentially life-threatening work environment. 

Although health initiatives informing consumers and workers about safe chemical practices have gained momentum, in light of recent spikes in climate change awareness, the Latinx immigrant community lacks accessibility to safer cleaning alternatives, and often experience health disparities due to inequality in information availability, and education opportunities, as “One out of every nine foreign-born female workers with a high school degree or less works in an in-home occupation.”

“In-home workers, who are mostly female and largely women of color and immigrants, are a critical and growing part of the economy, yet they are grievously underpaid and lack the benefits that similar workers receive in other sectors,” said EPI economist, Heidi Shierholz.

The Safe and Just Cleaners Project seeks to address these inequities, primarily through a strategic partnership with Make the Road New York. Based in Bushwick, Brooklyn, the nonprofit group is New York City’s largest Latinx immigrant community organization, providing legal services, education, policy writing, and community organizing. Their stature as a trusted community that fights effectively and sincerely for immigrants has led to numerous victories: most recently, the passage of the Green Light NY Bill, which will grant immigrants the right to a driver’s license in New York State, after nearly two decades of organizing efforts. 

The studies conducted will range from gathering volatile organic and quaternary ammonium compounds, to assessing knowledge and attitudes about health hazards. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, specific aims of the research study are:

1. Evaluate working conditions, knowledge, and attitudes about consumer cleaning product use that result in inhalation and skin exposure to toxic components of consumer cleaning agents.

2. Measure workers’ exposure during cleaning and any residual exposures that may contaminate home environments.

3. Develop and implement a multi-level public health campaign to inform Latinx domestic cleaners and their communities about safer alternatives, thereby reducing exposure to toxic cleaning agents.

Beyond the findings, the partnership empowers domestic cleaners to recognize the risks in their practice, take steps to improve work conditions, and reduce exposure to harmful chemicals within the Latinx community. Emphasized with the future public health campaign, the true nature of the project isn’t solely to collect data and abandon interview subjects, but rather, to help the Brooklyn Latinx community achieve healthy growth, and establish a model for other local communities, near and far. 

Infographics courtesy of Safe & Just Cleaning. Cover image courtesy of Philip Wilson.

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