Monday, March 19, 2007

On a Sick Planet, Hospitals Must Go Green



"It's a sad irony of modern living that the health care industry -- the largest single industrial sector in the US economy, and one that generates 2 million tons of waste per year -- adds to the toxic load in a polluted environment that is, in turn, making people sick.

Chronic diseases and conditions now affect more than one third of the US population, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In spite of medical advancements, scientific evidence shows an increase in asthma, autism, learning disabilities, birth defects, childhood brain cancer, endometriosis and other chronic conditions that are linked to toxic pollutants.

Historically, the health care industry has been part of the problem. In 1995, for example, medical waste incinerators were the number-one source of dioxin (the most potent carcinogen known to man) and were responsible for 10 percent of mercury emissions, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

"Of all the ways to fill hospital beds, burning medical waste shouldn't be one of them," declared protest posters in demonstrations across the country, while advocates pushed for stricter pollution-control regulations and urged hospitals to switch to safer alternatives. A decade later, more than 5,000 medical waste incinerators have closed in the US, and fewer than 100 remain. Thousands of hospitals are also phasing out products that contain mercury.

Which brings us to the good news: Even as it has contributed to the problem, the health care sector has demonstrated it can be a large part of the solution.

"As an industry with massive buying power, and one that values health as a core part of its mission, the health care industry can and is shifting the market toward healthier and more sustainable products and practices," says Laura Brannen, director of Hospitals for a Healthy Environment, a non-profit that works with hospitals to eliminate mercury, reduce waste and choose less toxic products.

Imagine, for instance, cancer treatment centers built without materials linked to cancer. Pediatric clinics free of chemicals that trigger asthma. Hospitals that serve fresh food grown by local farmers. Imagine the health care industry at the vanguard of a new sustainable green economy that is compatible with living systems. This vision is starting to take root at major hospitals and health care systems across the country."

Read more on AlterNet.

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