Hospitals Assuming Leading Role in Protecting Public Health from Chemicals

by Gary Cohen, President and Co-founder of Health Care Without Harm

The findings of the Chicago Tribune that manufacturers engaged in sleight of hand and deceitful tactics in order to rush halogenated flame retardants to the market without sufficient safety and efficacy testing is of deep concern, but also not surprising. With little federal oversight and regulation, chemical manufacturers have been able to use chemicals with a questionable safety record with impunity, exposing millions of Americans to chemicals with potentially debilitating health consequences.

In the absence of government action to protect public health, last week hospitals stepped in to help by using one of the most effective powers they have available—their purchasing power—to proactively provide a market for products made without HFRs. In a letter to health product manufacturers, the 11 hospital systems comprising the Healthier Hospitals Initiative—with a purchasing power of $20 billion—stated that they intend to purchase products made without HFRs, and asked the manufacturers for a list of product that meet this requirement.  

This development is important for a number of reasons. First, it is significant because health care has determined that the best strategy in obtaining the safer chemicals and products they need to develop sustainable operations is to be proactive and seek out these products. Secondly, this action highlights the fact that collectively, hospitals can accomplish much that individual hospitals cannot do alone, and that is speaks to why the HHI was founded. The hospital systems that sponsor HHI pledged to use their purchasing power to help move the markets toward sustainability, and their recent pledge to purchase non-HFR-containing products will give an incentive for manufacturers to bring safer products to the marketplace. 

But most importantly, the hospitals of the Healthier Hospitals Initiative are taking a leadership role in improving the health of the nation. This role, while seemingly most logical and appropriate, is oddly, one that has not been utilized appropriately in the past as our nation has relied much more on Congress and regulators to protect the nation’s health. And while there is still a place for these entities to set public policy, it is important that hospitals and medical professionals take their rightful place at the public policy table as stewards of public health. Our nation is experiencing an epidemic of chronic disease, much of which is caused or exacerbated by environmental factors. We are living in a world drenched in potentially dangerous chemicals and pollutants. Our regulatory and legislative systems have failed to protect us. Hospitals that have enrolled in HHI are taking an important step to protect the health of their patient, staff and communities. It is an appropriate role, and one that we need to encourage and escalate to a national level.