ANNA gilmore hall

ANNA GILMORE HALL

Green is going mainstream. Everywhere you look these days, the media seem to be reporting on, as a recent cover of

Newsweek called it, “the new greening of America.”

Green building is the fastest growing segment of the building construction sector; organic food product sales have shot up 20% in the past decade according to Consumer Reports (“When it pays to buy organic,” Feb. 2006); and Whole Foods Market has been one of the fastest growing mass retailers in the United States over the last few years according to Financial Times.

The Sept. 25, 2006 edition of The Boston Globe reported that Massachusetts' largest dairies are scrambling to remove artificial growth hormones from their bottled milk in an attempt to draw back customers who have switched to organic. Huge companies such as Wal-Mart are now jumping on the bandwagon of organic food production, a $1 billion market in the 1990s that is projected to reach $21 billion a year by the end of the decade according to the September 2001 issue of Nutrition Business Journal.

A sea change is under way in the economy. Led by growing public concern about the health impact of toxic pollution and the increasing demand for safer, sustainable products and processes, the green wave is gaining strength as more companies and market sectors are recognizing that what's better for the environment is also better for health and the bottom line.

The healthcare industry is starting to experience these benefits firsthand. Early adopters of green building and operations programs are finding that they can save significant amounts of money over time because of design efficiencies and revamped waste management systems, and by using their purchasing power to drive down the prices of green materials.

As one example, Kaiser Permanente, the largest nonprofit healthcare system in the United States, eliminated millions of latex gloves and single-handedly drove down the price of safer nitrile alternatives when it purchased bulk orders of nitrile. The company also recently compelled carpet manufacturers to develop a new environmentally preferable, PVC-free carpet product in exchange for an exclusive contract to supply all of the system's new buildings.

“In an era of rising construction costs, you don't have to pay extra money and use precious healthcare dollars just to be green,” Christine Malcolm, a vice-president at Kaiser, told The Wall Street Journal in the October 4, 2006, article “Hospitals Go ‘Green’ to Cut Toxins, Improve Patient Environment.” She explains that suppliers can be forced to generate environmentally sensitive products because of the industry's buying power.

It's a bold vision, but one that is paying off for forward-thinking healthcare leaders who are greening their systems. The Wall Street Journal article featured the stories of several pioneering hospitals, such as University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampsire, and others who are early adopters of top-to-bottom green building and operations efforts. Some are among the most innovative green projects in any sector.

“When Kaiser Permanente's new medical center in Modesto, Calif., is completed in 2008, solar panels will cut energy costs, permeable pavement material will filter chemicals from rainwater runoff, floors will be covered with natural rubber, carpets will be backed with recycled safety glass—even toilets will be fitted with special fixtures to conserve water,” reported the Journal.

Another story about the Modesto facility, this one in The Record (available at http://www.record.net) noted, “Typical first-time visitors to the medical offices immediately notice something that's not there—the aroma of fresh paint, new carpets and other chemical smells that typically arise from a new building.”

That no-chemical-smell effect was achieved in part by decisions to use German-made rubber flooring instead of traditional vinyl sheet tile, along with the newly developed PVC-free carpeting and low-VOC paints and upholstery—material choices that were made explicitly to protect patient and worker health by reducing indoor chemical fumes.

This health-based approach to green building is catching on, and the benefits are adding up. According to the Wall Street Journal story, “In the past five years, [Kaiser Permanente] says it has eliminated the purchase and disposal of 40 tons of hazardous chemicals, chosen ‘ecologically sustainable’ materials for 30 million square feet in new construction and saved more than $10 million a year through energy-conservation strategies.”

Not insignificantly, the hospital system has received further national recognition as a green leader with stories in Time Magazine and Newsweek, as well as on National Public Radio and the Discovery Channel.

This is exactly where healthcare should be—in the spotlight, getting positive attention for its leadership in the green building movement, for modeling the idea that a green building is a building that is also healthy for people, and for using its immense purchasing power to drive the market toward safer, smarter alternatives.

As noted environmentalist Deirdre Imus recently wrote in an October 9, 2006, Web-Exclusive Commentary for Newsweek, the work of building and operating green hospitals is, fundamentally, about protecting children's health: “From the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat, numerous toxic substances from a variety of sources are bombarding our children each day …Taking any step to reduce or eliminate toxins in our environment is simple common sense and is often easy to do.” Along with New Jersey's Hackensack University Medical Center, she established The Deirdre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology in 2001, one of the first hospital programs whose mission is “to identify, control, and ultimately prevent environmental factors that may cause adult and, especially, pediatric cancer and other health problems.”

Imus also developed a “Greening the Cleaning” program for choosing safer, greener cleaners, which is being used by more than 200 hospitals, schools, corporations, and other facilities across the country. “We may not be able to change the world, but we can change the way we think about children's health,” she wrote in her Newsweek article. “Each one of us has tremendous potential to make a difference. Switching to a non-toxic cleaning product is a single change that can lead to another and another and ultimately to a cleaner, safer and healthier life.”

This and future issues of the new magazine Clean Design and Operations will tell the stories of these one-step-at-a-time—and many-steps-together—efforts that hospitals and healthcare providers across the United States and all around the world are taking to advance the green “sea change” and bring us closer to a healthcare system and a global economy that protect the health of children and all of us.

Anna Gilmore Hall, RN, is Executive Director of Health Care Without Harm.

For further information, visit http://www.noharm.org.