The recently passed health care bill will cover an additional 32 million Americans and begin to dramatically change the way health care is delivered. These are welcome steps that will ultimately save resources, but there are other environmental concerns when it comes to health care—especially care delivered in hospitals. Hospitals should focus on three key areas to address these concerns: waste, cleaning chemicals, and green building.
The health care industry’s ecological impacts are massive. U.S. hospitals generate approximately 6,600 tons of waste daily—no small number—and 85 percent of this is nonhazardous solid waste such as paper, cardboard, food, glass, and plastics that can be recovered or recycled. This recyclable waste could easily be sorted from the hazardous, infectious, and radioactive waste, lowering disposal costs.
Hazardous waste disposal is also a major problem. Dangerous waste from hospitals must undergo at least one of four treatment processes before it arrives at the disposal site: autoclaving, thermal disinfection, microwave sanitation, or incineration. Incineration releases dioxin, mercury, lead, and other carcinogens into the environment, threatening human health.
Luckily, activists and pollution regulations have reduced the number of active medical incinerators in the United States to roughly 100 from more than 5,000 in the mid-1990s. An extended grassroots campaign in Hamtramck, Michigan shut down that state’s last operating incinerator in 2005, which violated state air pollution laws. The campaign was supported by citizens and elected officials and guarantees that residents will no longer be made ill by their own hospital. Continued community pressure could bring that number down to zero and promote the use of alternative, nontoxic disposal treatments.
Many potentially toxic chemicals are used in large amounts not just for patient care, but to clean the hospital itself. These traditional cleaning products, floor strippers, and disinfectants often contain bioaccumulative toxins or PBTs that can contribute to environmental pollution during manufacturing and lead to poor indoor air quality when they’re used. These cleaners also contain chemicals that can cause cancer; immunological, neurological, and reproductive disorders; respiratory problems; skin irritation; and a host of other ailments.
Less toxic, environmentally friendly, and fragrance-free products can be used to ensure patients, health care workers, and the surrounding communities are safe. Many institutions have already gotten on board. For example, Kaiser Permanente, which is the largest nonprofit health system in the United States, instructs hospitals in their purchasing choices to avoid chemicals that can cause cancer and genetic mutation.
Waste and costs could also be reduced through efficiency. The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, estimates that 30 percent of the health sector’s energy use could be reduced by switching toward renewable and more efficient energy sources at no cost to quality of care. The EPA’s ENERGY STAR program has free energy audits for health care facilities as well as energy evaluation tools and information on how to purchase more energy efficient products. And it provides information on making your facility more efficient through simple steps like switching off machines when not in use, calibrating thermostats, and periodically checking the hot water system for leaks.
All these changes can pay off. For-profit hospitals, for example, can boost earnings per share by a penny by reducing energy costs by 5 percent.
Hospitals can also make structural changes to their buildings to save money. Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Shapiro Cardiovascular Center uses only nontoxic cleaners and has banned latex gloves to prevent allergies among workers, and 75 percent of the building’s interior is exposed to natural light. Natural light not only reduces energy costs, but scientific studies conducted in the health care sector support the conclusion that natural daylight shortens patient recovery times, improves their mood, and generally promotes well-being.
The health care bill took a big step toward making sure every American can get the care they need. The health care industry can continue to make great strides and take steps to make sure that care is delivered in a way that causes the least harm to people and the planet.