The first ever environmental survey of 50 major U.S. hospitals uncovered widespread failure on the part of medical facilities to take steps to halt contamination of milk, meats and fish by dioxins and mercury, pollutants that cause a wide range of health impacts. Federal studies show that incineration of millions of pounds of hospital waste each year is a major source of the highly toxic contaminants, both of which find their way into the food supply.
Johns Hopkins Hospital, voted the nation's top hospital by U.S. News and World Report, turned out to be one of the worst in the "Greening Hospitals" survey. Hopkins unnecessarily sends waste to a low income Baltimore community to be burned in an incinerator with a dangerous safety record.
"Americans expect hospitals to keep them healthy, not to add to the risk of cancer and other diseases," said Ken Cook of The Environmental Working Group, one of the study's authors. "Some hospitals are environmental heroes. But the industry has a long way to go to before it can be considered environmentally responsible."
Of the top 50 hospitals surveyed, over 40 percent were unnecessarily incinerating waste that could be treated by safer methods. Only one in five hospitals had programs to reduce purchases of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a major factor in dioxin emissions when hospital waste is incinerated. Only 4 percent of the hospitals surveyed used PVC-free IV bags, the easiest and most cost effective alternative for a major PVC hospital product.
Dioxin, the deadliest known carcinogen, also disrupts the normal functioning of the hormone system, leading to a broad array of reproductive and developmental health problems. A study released this month by Consumer Reports found that dioxin levels in the average jar of processed meat baby-food products were 100 times greater than the government's daily limit.
The survey also found that nearly four out of five hospitals surveyed had mercury reduction programs, but nearly half were still buying mercury thermometers and over half were still buying mercury blood pressure cuffs. A December, 1997 EPA Report on mercury found that 1.6 million pregnant women, children and women of child-bearing age are exposed to unsafe levelsof mercury from fish alone. The same study found that ten percent of that mercury comes from medical waste incineration.
Survey results are presented in a groundbreaking report, "Greening Hospitals," released today by Health Care Without Harm, a national coalition of healthcare providers and public health advocates, and The Environmental Working Group.
Dr. Michael McCally, Professor of Community Medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, said "there is an environmental health crisis in our nation which leaves no American exempt. We are all being exposed to toxic chemicals in the food we eat. Rather than being a major source of the problem, our nation's hospitals should be advocates against toxic threats."
The report also identified a number of America's hospitals and healthcare associations that are reducing their industry's negative impact on health and the environment.
- Dartmouth Hitchcock in Lebanon, New Hampshire has a model mercury segregation and recycling program.
- Albany Medical Center in New York has model chemical recycling and mercury reduction programs.
- Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, dramatically reduced its "red bag" waste, rejected incineration and saved millions of dollars.
- Resolutions calling for elimination of PVC plastic in the health care industry have been adopted by the California Medical Association, the Minnesota Hospital and Health Care Partnership and the American Public Health Association.
Janet Brown, the Medical Waste Manager at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, said "we have shown that hospitals can protect the environment and their employees and save lots of money at the same time. I hope that other hospitals follow our lead."
Charlotte Brody, RN, and national coordinator of Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), said, "We found many hospitals talk greener than they act. We stand ready to help all our nation's top hospitals get their toxic waste out of our food and inspire others to follow."
To receive a copy of "Greening Hospitals" or find out about individual hospitals in your community, contact The Environmental Working Group: (202) 667-6982. The report is available, free of charge, at www.ewg.org.
Survey responses from individual hospitals are available from the following cities: Albany, Allentown, Ann Arbor, Baltimore, Berwyn, Boston, Chapel Hill, Charleston, Charlottesville, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Durham, Fairview, Falls Church, Gainesville, Hanover, IowaCity, Little Rock, Loma Linda, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Nashville, NewHyde Park, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland, Providence, Rochester, Sacramento, Saint Louis, San Francisco, Seattle, Stanford, Washington D.C., Wilmington, Winston-Salem.
Health Care Without Harm, a nationwide coalition of 85 organizations, includes the American Nurses Association, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Catholic Health Care West, Center for Health, Environment and Justice, the Breast Cancer Fund, and the United Methodist Church.