Q I’m an RN horrified by the dangerous chemicals used in health care. How can I help make my workplace be healthier?
A You’ve heard the old health care adage “Do no harm”? Well, while hardworking pros like you are trying to keep us healthy, hospitals themselves have, for decades, been making the planet sick thanks to oozing hazardous waste, toxic chems and giant greenhouse gas footprints. It’s enough to get conscious patients and workers muttering, “Hospital, heal thyself.”
Caring for patients can be dirty work. In the U.S. alone, hospitals churn out 7,000 tons of waste per day (yes, per day). And a fair chunk of that ain’t the kind you just toss in a blue bin.
In fact, medical waste can be incredibly hazardous. Dump trucks full of Canadian trash have been stopped at the U.S. border because detectors picked up on radioactive waste in radiation patient diapers.
To make matters worse, hospitals have long done their own incinerating. Talk about a bad idea: burning medical waste was the second-largest source of carcinogenic dioxin contamination in Canada and 9 per cent of the country’s mercury emissions in 2001. Both end up contaminating everyone’s meat, dairy and fish as they build up in the food chain.
Luckily, Ontario phased out all but one of these old belchers by 2003 (the last one’s near James Bay). More good news is that waste reduction policies are popping up everywhere. The Hospital for Sick Children, for instance, has reduced biomedical waste a whopping 80 per cent since 92 and upped recycling by 78 per cent.
Despite these efforts, medical supplies still contain plenty of scary toxins. Sure, some hospital purchasing departments are taking on environmental buying policies beyond the mercury-free push of the 90s. (Incubator thermometers, dilators, defibrillators, blood pressure monitors and feeding tubes can all contain the potent neurotoxin.)
But controversial PVC drip bags, ID bracelets and other items are still a reality in most T.O. hospitals. Not good, considering they’re heavy in hormone-disrupting phthalates. One phthalate (DEHP) is such a worry for newborns that a Health Canada expert committee says babies and moms-to-be should be kept away from suspect drips (hence why Sick Kids uses PVC-free versions).
What about all those harsh cleaning products misted throughout hospitals? Potent disinfectants give off lung- and eye-irritating, smog-inducing VOCs that aren’t exactly helping patients with compromised immune systems. Some, like the University Health Network (which includes Toronto General, Toronto Western and Princess Margaret), have already phased out the worst offenders. UHN is using Environmental Choice certified cleaners as we speak. (Go to www.ecologo.org for certified hospital-grade cleaners.)
And don’t even get me started about the food. Okay, so most hospital cafs serve stir-fries and basic salads now, but what about putting local, sustainable, organic ingredients on the menu – and not just in the cafeterias where hungry relatives and staff munch, but also for the poor patients now being served slop.
We need food purchasing policies that support, say, antibiotic-free chicken, organic milk and fair trade coffee. For more ideas, including hosting organic farmers’ markets on hospital grounds, check out Healthyfoodinhealthcare.org.
Speaking of resources, Healthcare- EnviroNet is a great resource for the medical community, linking to tons of info on pollution-prevention strategies and green purchasing (www.c2p2online.com) Sustainablehospitals.org is rammed with alternatives like PVC-free mattress protectors or phthalate-free feeding tubes.
As a front-line worker, you can really help drive change from the inside. (See www.theluminaryproject. org for inspirational examples.) No enviro rep on staff? Start your own green committee. If you feel you need backup, look into the Health Care Without Harm’s Nurses Workgroup (www.noharm.org/us/nurses).
Or maybe you’re a patient worried about weird chems, a fretting family member wanting organic eats or just a concerned community member hoping your local hospital hoists solar panels (as Sick Kids is planning to do). Speak up! Let the patient relations peeps know it’s time for healthcare facilities to help heal the planet.
Got a question? Send your green queries to firstname.lastname@example.org