A plate of healthy greens, a breath of fresh air -- hospitals are probably the last place you'd expect to find such age-old aides of healing.
While walking the stuffy hallways of today's typical health care establishments, you're more likely to encounter a plate-full of something bland and wiggly and breathe in a lung-full of toxic fumes.
It's a sad irony of modern living that the health care industry -- the largest single industrial sector in the US economy, and one that generates 2 million tons of waste per year -- adds to the toxic load in a polluted environment that is, in turn, making people sick.
Chronic diseases and conditions now affect more than one third of the US population, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In spite of medical advancements, scientific evidence shows an increase in asthma, autism, learning disabilities, birth defects, childhood brain cancer, endometriosis and other chronic conditions that are linked to toxic pollutants.
Historically, the health care industry has been part of the problem. In 1995, for example, medical waste incinerators were the number-one source of dioxin (the most potent carcinogen known to man) and were responsible for 10 percent of mercury emissions, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
"Of all the ways to fill hospital beds, burning medical waste shouldn't be one of them," declared protest posters in demonstrations across the country, while advocates pushed for stricter pollution-control regulations and urged hospitals to switch to safer alternatives. A decade later, more than 5,000 medical waste incinerators have closed in the US, and fewer than 100 remain. Thousands of hospitals are also phasing out products that contain mercury.
Shifting the Market
Which brings us to the good news: Even as it has contributed to the problem, the health care sector has demonstrated it can be a large part of the solution.
"As an industry with massive buying power, and one that values health as a core part of its mission, the health care industry can and is shifting the market toward healthier and more sustainable products and practices," says Laura Brannen, director of Hospitals for a Healthy Environment, a non-profit that works with hospitals to eliminate mercury, reduce waste and choose less toxic products.
Imagine, for instance, cancer treatment centers built without materials linked to cancer. Pediatric clinics free of chemicals that trigger asthma. Hospitals that serve fresh food grown by local farmers. Imagine the health care industry at the vanguard of a new sustainable green economy that is compatible with living systems. This vision is starting to take root at major hospitals and health care systems across the country.
As one example of health care's power to shift markets, Kaiser Permanente, the nation's largest non-profit health care system, has required building materials for some 30-million square feet of new construction to be free of PVC plastic, a material that is toxic throughout its lifecycle.
PVC, or vinyl, creates dioxin when manufactured (in places like Louisiana's Cancer Alley). When burned in incinerators, it can also leach the toxic chemical DEHP, which is linked to birth defects and reduced fertility.
In order to meet Kaiser's health-based criteria, manufacturers developed new PVC-free carpet and wall covering products. In exchange, they won exclusive contracts to supply all the health care system's new buildings.
"In an era of rising construction costs, you don't have to pay extra money and use precious health care dollars just to be green," Christine Malcolm, a vice president at Kaiser, told the Wall Street Journal. With the health care industry's purchasing power, "we can force suppliers to generate environmentally sensitive products."
A Brave New Model
Another example of health care using its buying clout to support health values is Catholic Healthcare West, the largest Catholic health system in the Western US. It pulled a $70 million contract from Baxter International, the nation's largest manufacturer of hospital products, after Baxter failed to develop PVC-free IV products. (The contract went to smaller manufacturer B. Braun.)
And last spring, Hospira, Inc., the nation's number-two supplier of hospital products, announced a new "next generation" IV product line that is not only PVC-free but also weighs 40-60 percent less than traditional containers, resulting in significant waste reduction.
From spurring the next generation of safer materials to serving up healthier food, more hospitals are taking an "ecological approach" to providing health care.
"As places of healing and well being, it's important that hospitals walk the talk and act as models for the community by serving healthier food that is grown and distributed in a more responsible way," says Lucia Sayre, program associate for San Francisco Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility, who is working with John Muir Health to buy meat from ranchers in a neighboring county. "There is a lot of enthusiasm out there for this type of work. This is only the beginning."
Hospitals are starting to recognize that the health of people is interconnected to the health of the surrounding community and larger environment.
"It's difficult to have healthy people on a sick planet," says Gary Cohen, co-founder of Health Care Without Harm, an international coalition working to reduce the environmental impact of the health care industry.
"The hospital of the 21st century can promote health and prevent disease. It can support the local economy and model the kind of environmentally responsible institutions every community should have. The hospital can situate itself in the broader ecology of its community and act as a healing force."