Health care institutions regularly use a surprising number of highly toxic materials that can affect the health of doctors, nurses and other hospital staff, as well as patients and visitors. These materials can also harm the environment.
Many health products contain toxicants
Products with toxic chemicals used in the health care sector that have an especially heavy impact include:
- cleaners and disinfectants;
- mercury in thermometers and sphygmomanometers;
- phthalates in IV bags, tubing and plastic gloves;
- triclosan in cleaners and disinfectants;
- brominated flame retardants in furniture and electronics; and
- dioxin from incinerated medical waste.
Some of these chemicals are known carcinogens, some are mutagens, asthmagens, or reproductive toxicants, some are materials that damage the skin and organs, and can be released in the course of normal use, storage, transportation or disposal.
Rising evidence ties exposure to disease
Some chemicals can act like drugs in your body, disrupting systems at low levels of exposure, and potentially causing harm in combination. But though many of these chemicals are used daily by hospital staff, many are hardly regulated at all.
As chemical use has grown in industrialized societies, so have diseases that have been linked to chemical exposures, like cancer, asthma, birth defects, developmental disabilities, autism and infertility. Mounting scientific evidence ties the incidence of these diseases in part to environmental toxicants, including chemicals.
Hospitals trying to purchase safer products face uphill battle
Health care institutions have a particular ethical responsibility to ensure the products they use contain chemicals that pose as little risk as possible to human health. But as quickly as environmental purchasing programs target specific chemicals for reduction, manufacturers switch to untested or unlisted chemicals.
Out-of-date legislation keeps toxic chemicals in circulation
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 is the main law used to regulate synthetic chemicals. But the law "grandfathered" in the 62,000 chemicals already in use at the time, allowing them to remain in circulation without any further testing. Most chemicals on the market today are part of that 62,000 and little is known about their effect on human health.
Furthermore, TSCA doesn't give regulators adequate authority, allowing even known carcinogens such as asbestos to remain legal in the U.S. (even though it's banned in over 30 other countries). And the law keeps health care institutions in the dark about thousands of chemicals, using a "trade secret" provision that keeps hidden the identities of some 20% of the tens of thousands of chemicals on the market today.
Reform is the right prescription
The Toxic Chemicals Safety Act (H.R. 5820), introduced in 2010 along with a companion bill in the Senate, the Safe Chemicals Act (S. 3209), would go a long way in improving the outdated TSCA. The bills would close some of the key loopholes that allow many synthetic chemicals to go untested, and would put the burden of proof on chemical companies to show their products are safe.
The bills would bring toxic chemical regulation into the 21st century. That's why we're encouraging all health professionals to stand with us and urge Congress to pass the strongest possible version of these bills.