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Three Emerging Trends Toward Healthier Healthcare Interiors

By Jeffrey Brown

Healthcare professionals are charged with creating environments that foster patient healing and healthy workplaces for staff. For more than 15 years, partner organizations Practice Greenhealth and Healthcare Without Harm have worked with thousands of hospitals and healthcare organizations and suppliers to take steps to create healthier facilities from the inside out. The most innovative organizations are using an intentional approach to avoid products, services and materials that can have negative impacts on patients, staff and our communities — impacts that run counter to healthcare’s healing mission.

We’ve seen lots of progress over the years and more is on the horizon. Below are three emerging areas where healthcare leaders are focusing their efforts for 2015.

Green Cleaning: Ultraviolet Disinfection

Hospitals and healthcare facilities must follow strict protocols to prevent infection and maintain the health and safety of both patients and staff. In the past, this meant traditional cleaning products that did a good job at helping maintain a sterile healing environment, yet some of these products also contained chemicals known to cause health problems for patients, the environment and healthcare professionals alike.

Data show that the healthcare sector has a higher incidence of work-related asthma, with cleaning products identified as one of the top causes. That’s because healthcare workers who routinely clean facilities and equipment are exposed to these chemicals with greater frequency.

Today, hospitals and healthcare facilities are turning to ultraviolet (UV) light as an innovative new cleaning tool proven to be highly effective at killing germs and bacteria. UV disinfection is so effective that it has been cited as a chemical-free alternative to cleaning by both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control. According to a study from the American Journal of Infection Control, antibiotic-resistant superbugs are decreased among patients by 20 percent after adding UV disinfection to the cleaning regimen. This includes vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium difficile and other superbugs.

UV cleaning systems disinfect any hard surface in a healthcare facility — from a computer keyboard to the entire contents of a room. Healthcare staff program the UV system before leaving the room. System sensors detect when it’s safe to start cleaning. Used properly, UV disinfection is safer for healthcare workers and better for the environment than traditional chemical disinfection systems.

We currently are seeing UV disinfection systems used in the most high-risk areas of the hospital, including the operating room and labor and delivery suites. Because of its effectiveness, we believe the use of UV cleaning systems in healthcare will grow over the coming year.

Safer Furnishings: Phasing Out Toxic Chemicals

Every day, we are exposed to thousands of chemicals in our homes, workplaces, schools and stores. Hospitals and healthcare facilities are no exception.

In recent years, we’ve learned that certain materials and products we use — including furniture, fabrics and building materials — contain toxic chemicals that can leach out and have adverse effects on human health and the environment. Forward-thinking healthcare facilities are zeroing in on safer furnishings as another important step toward creating healthier healing environments. In fact, the 2013 Healthier Hospitals Initiative Milestone Report released by Practice Greenhealth showed that healthcare facility spending is up on products considered to be safer and healthier for patients, staff and visitors who walk through the doors.

Practice Greenhealth recommends phasing out the following four harmful chemicals often used in healthcare products that come in contact with patients: halogenated flame retardants, formaldehyde, perfluorinated compounds and polyvinyl chloride. Some of these harmful chemicals can escape from products and make their way into our bodies and the environment. They are believed to play a role in rising chronic diseases and conditions, including some cancers, birth defects, learning and developmental disabilities, infertility, asthma, and neurological disorders.

2014 was a big year in our quest for safer products. Last year, five leading U.S. health systems announced decisions to stop purchasing any furniture treated with toxic flame retardants. The growing use of automatic sprinkler systems, along with bans on indoor smoking, means we can achieve fire safety without the use of hazardous chemicals.

The five health systems — Advocate Healthcare, Beaumont Health System, Hackensack University Medical Center, Kaiser Permanente and University Hospitals Health System — spend roughly $80 million a year to furnish their hospitals, medical offices and other buildings with chairs, benches, sofas and other furniture. Their decision to purchase flame retardant-free furnishings is a game-changer for the healthcare industry and the healthcare supply chain.

Should Your Facility Go Green?

The Healthier Hospitals Initiative — a program of longtime healthcare sustainability leaders Practice Greenhealth and Healthcare Without Harm — has already helped hundreds of hospitals across the country take a big step forward in selecting healthier furniture and materials. Check out the Healthier Hospitals Initiative’s comprehensive list of products guaranteed to be free from the four chemicals of concerns we recommend you avoid:

Better Indoor Air: Reducing Waste Anesthetic Gases

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air pollutants are among the top five environmental risks to public health. It’s imperative that hospitals and healthcare facilities have good indoor air quality to provide a safe environment for those who need it the most: children, pregnant women, the elderly, those with chronic illnesses and healthcare professionals inside these facilities day in and day out.

While green cleaning practices and phasing out toxic chemicals lead to better indoor air, additional measures must be taken to ensure that patients and healthcare professionals are breathing healthy air.

For decades, anesthetic gases have provided comfort and better outcomes for patients undergoing surgery. In recent years, however, concerns about the adverse health effects of anesthetic gases have grown, motivating hospitals and healthcare facilities to reduce the wasted anesthetic gases that escape during surgery.

Waste anesthetic gases are small amounts of volatile anesthetic gases that leak from a patient’s breathing circuit or are exhaled by a patient who is recovering.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports the symptoms of high- concentration exposures to waste anesthetic gases include dizziness, feelings of light-headedness, nausea, fatigue, headache, irritability and depression. Other serious health impacts include liver and kidney disease. Exposed workers can experience difficulty with cognition, perception, judgment and motor skills — placing themselves and others at risk.

Several studies have also linked long-term exposure to low concentrations of waste anesthetic gases to miscarriages, genetic damage and cancer. Healthcare professionals in the operating and recovery rooms are most likely to be affected.

Scavenger and room ventilation systems are the two most important factors in reduction of waste anesthetic gases. More hospitals are installing well-designed scavenging systems as a primary line of defense to collect, remove and properly dispose of the gases. Ventilation systems also help circulate and replenish the air in both operating and recovery rooms to prevent exposure. Proper work practice and air-monitoring tools also go a long way.

About the Author

With more than 25 years of experience in environmentally preferable operations, Jeffrey Brown serves as a driving force for sustainability in healthcare. As executive director of Practice Greenhealth — the nation’s leading membership organization for healthcare institutions committed to sustainable practices — Brown is a key player in a national movement to increase environmentally preferable operations in healthcare facilities. To learn more, visit


January 22, 2015


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