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Connection Between Pollution and Health Care

By Seema Wadhwa, Director, HHI

As Pollution Prevention Week draws to a close, it is worthwhile to look ahead at the responsibility that the healthcare industry has to take initiative. The connection between the problem of pollution and the healthcare industry is both twofold, and cyclical. 

First, the health care industry is responsible for a significant amount of waste and environmental pollution—approximately six million tons annually.  To compound the problem, environmental pollution is linked to certain health conditions, including heart disease, lung disease, chronic bronchitis—just to name a few. Therefore, upholding the Hippocratic Oath to “first do no harm” necessitates both a deeper understanding of the problem, and a call to action.

It’s not news that the health sector is traditionally responsible for a significant amount of waste and pollution.  Hospitals generate a daily average of 26 pounds of waste per staffed bed, and evidence has created rising concerns about mercury released from medical waste incinerators, vast volume of waste and pharmaceuticals in drinking water.  Proper waste segregation, coupled with recycling efforts, is a commendable reactionary measure.  However, to make the sort of progress which the Hippocratic Oath compels us to work towards, we must stop pollution at its source; that is, prevent rather than react.

This is where the EPA’s Pollution Prevention (P2) initiative sets in.  P2 is defined as the “front-end” method to decrease costs, risks, and environmental concerns. In contrast to managing pollution after it is created, P2 reduces or eliminates waste atits source.  P2 has named four catalysts for change in stopping pollution before it starts.  These include modifying procedures,promoting the use of non-toxic or less-toxic substances, implementing conservation techniques, andre-using materials rather than putting them into the waste stream.

Healthier Hospitals Initiative is helping respond to these challenges through a number of challenges.  Environmentally-Preferable Purchasing (EPP) is one example.  EPP is smarter purchasing, and it entails buying reusable rather than one-time use products, making sure electronics come with Energy Star’s stamp of approval, and ensuring that the products are free from harmful chemicals—just to name a few examples. 

Mercury is a toxic pollutantthat is linked to a number of health problems, ranging from emotional instability and insomnia to blindness, paralysis, and even death.  Removing mercury in hospitals, then, is another crucial element to promoting the use of non-toxic substances.  Mercury can be found in thermometers, blood pressure monitors, high-intensity lamps, cleaning solutions, and thermostats, providing context for environmentally preferable purchasing to mitigate the impacts of pollution and health concerns

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