I’m fortunate enough to work for a company that recognizes the importance of reducing chemical exposure and equally fortunate to serve in a role where my focus is educating our health care partners about the dangers of chemically laden products. Decades of research has clearly shown that we must limit our exposure to a variety of dangerous materials because of the known harmful effects on both human health and the environment.
As an industry, providers are increasingly adopting environmentally preferred sourcing programs to more efficiently purchase products. These environmentally preferred products promote safety patient and reduces risk by purchasing products that do not inadvertently harm caregivers or those who they are trying to heal.
Dr. Arlene Blum, PhD, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, recently presented her “Six Classes Approach,” which removes harmful groups of chemicals of concern from the market. These six classes include highly fluorinated chemicals, antimicrobials, flame retardants, bisphenols and phthalates, some solvents and certain metals. Her approach limits the use of harmful chemical groups and prohibits the use of a closely related chemical, as it may cause similar harm. Dr. Blum instructs that if a product contains one of these damaging chemicals, alternative products with safer compositions should be sought to ensure healthier people and a healthier planet.
Unfortunately, no one organization has adequate authority to confirm the safety of chemicals contained in products that are used on a daily basis. This includes a variety of products from household cleaners to body care. Therefore, it is up to everyone in the health care industry and beyond to take control and ensure we’re not poisoning ourselves with chemicals that are known endocrine disruptors, carcinogens and chemicals that cause reproductive and neurological harm. For example, many hospitals have committed to purchasing upholstered furniture without flame retardants, adopting environmentally preferred cleaning chemicals and eliminating mercury from their campuses.
Hospitals around the nation are also joining forces to ask for transparency in product composition and safer, environmentally preferred alternatives. Not only are health care institutions fulfilling their missions of “first, do no harm,” but they are driving change in the industry by demanding nontoxic products for everyone from vulnerable neonates to delivering mothers.
The unfortunate news is that these harmful chemicals are not reserved for the health care industry, but are ubiquitous within consumer products. Chemicals of concern are found in a multitude of products from baby care to food packaging. The good news is Dr. Blum has outlined a list of steps each one of us can take to limit our chemical exposure which includes:
- Don’t use plastic containers for microwaving or for hot food/drinks
- Eat more fresh food and less processed, packaged food
- Wash hands after touching cash register receipts; especially before eating
- Select products without “fragrance,” “perfume,” or “parfum” on the ingredient label
- Vacuum with a hepa filter to eliminate dust
- Choose textiles and carpeting without water and stain-repellency
- Avoid food with greaseproof packaging such as some fast food
- Read ingredient labels and avoid products containing triclosan and triclocarban
- When possible, ask for products without antimicrobials such as soap, deodorant, skin cleansers, sunscreens and cosmetics
- When buying upholstered furniture, look for a label stating that the item does not contain flame retardants.
- Select eco-labeled cleaning products such as US EPA’s “Safer Choice”
Thousands of chemicals have flooded the marketplace while many of them have not been well studied. Personally and professionally, I believe we have an obligation to minimize the use of chemicals that have been proven to be harmful to people and the environment. When it comes to chemicals, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
About the author. In her role as senior director of program services for Vizient, Cristina Indiveri guides the strategy and future of the company’s industry-leading Environmentally Preferred Sourcing program. She collaborates with Vizient member executive leaders, suppliers and internal stakeholders to lead the development of new offerings and the implementation of strategic initiatives that positively contribute to human and environmental health, deliver significant member value and enhance member satisfaction. With nearly 10 years of health care experience, Indiveri has held various leadership roles in health care, including oversight of the sustainability program at Yale-New Haven Hospital.