Changing policies and procedures is difficult for any large organization, and a hospital is no exception. Budget and time concerns can often push important issues to the backburner, even where safety is concerned. Fortunately, there are some simple steps that a hospital can take to decrease harmful practices and improve the quality of the environment for both patients and staff alike.
Many significant changes can be made by simply altering the materials and products your hospital uses, particularly those that employ harmful compounds. Dioxin is one such compound. According to when.org, dioxin is a carcinogen that has been linked to “birth defects, decreased fertility, immune system suppression, and other hormonal dysfunction. The manufacturing and incineration of PVC (vinyl) plastics contribute to its creation.”
Similarly, DEHP (Di-Ethylhexyl Phthalate) is used to make PVC plastics (such as vinyl) pliable. When.org warns that “Because DEHP does not bond, it can leach into a patient’s blood stream.” The site also cautions that DEHP can be of particular concern to “male fetuses, newborn boys and pre-adolescent males.”
In both cases, diminishing and eliminating DEHP and dioxin in your hospital can be accomplished by notifying your hospital’s purchasing department that medical items and supplies containing PVC and/or vinyl (such as many traditional blood bags, office supplies, shower curtains, and tubing) should be avoided. Replace these items by finding a manufacturer of supplies that do not use PVC.
Reducing your hospital’s waste can also lessen potential hazards, with the added benefit of making your facility more efficient and use less resources. Sustainablehospitals.org notes that “Improved sorting and recycling systems dramatically reduce the amount of waste that must be incinerated. Far more materials are incinerated in the average medical waste incinerator than necessary to protect the public from disease. Only 15% of hospital waste is considered infectious waste that requires special treatment. Pathological waste — tissues and organs — is the only type of waste that must be incinerated.”
There are examples from active hospitals that demonstrate the effectiveness of taking these steps. In Vermont, the Fletcher-Allen Health Care System used a waste reduction program to reduce the volume of regulated medical waste at one campus by 75% in a few months. And in New York City, the Beth Israel Medical Center saves $600,000 per year through improved waste management systems. Looking at these two examples, sustainablehospitals.org notes, “There is thus potential for medical facilities to decrease the need for incineration while also saving costs.”
Identifying potential areas of change
To best achieve positive change in your hospital, you first need to assess what areas are in need of change. Listed below are the “two major aspects to examine in auditing a hospital facility” according to sustainablehospitals.org.
Proper procurement practices can help reduce the amount of harmful packaging, find alternative non-toxic products, and reduce the use of disposable items.
Waste segregation can drastically reduce the volume and toxicity of the waste stream. It is a necessary component of recycling, and requires some training and education. Waste segregation will reduce the amount of materials incinerated, since only pathological wastes must be disposed of by incineration, according to the Centers for Disease Control guidelines. Medical products which are made of PVC plastic (#3) should especially be segregated and NOT incinerated because they can produce dioxin-like substances, which are endocrine disrupters and carcinogens.
Once you’ve identified these two aspects, it’s time to form a committee to conduct the survey of your current practices and recommend change. It is also crucial during this time that you consult with regulatory agencies – such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) – to make sure any changes you make comply with federal regulations and with your state’s regulations.
For more information, consider attending the CleanMed2008 conference on May 20-22 in Pittsburgh, PA. You’ll be able to join healthcare leaders, product vendors, purchasing directors, and other healthcare decision-makers to discuss the latest trends in:
Nutritious, Sustainable Foods and Food Systems
Environmentally Preferable Purchasing
Safer Materials and Healthy Chemical Policies
Environmentally Preferable Medical Waste Treatment and Disposal
Waste Reduction and Recycling
EES provides assistance to medical facilities in the development and implementation of all aspects of environmental management. Contact Tom Petersen, P.E. at 215-881-9401 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org for further details.
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