How Greener Medical Products Can Address Health Concerns

When patients are admitted to a hospital, they expect to be treated in an environment that helps people heal. They might be surprised to learn that hospitals across the U.S. use products and materials that contain industrial chemicals that can potentially do more harm than good.

There is growing evidence that exposure to some industrial chemicals commonly found in medical products can contribute to cancer, asthma, reproductive disorders and other health conditions.

In health care alone, common products such as cleaners, solvents, medical devices and building materials include chemicals that pose a hazard to human health and the environment. In fact, there are more than 80,000 chemicals used in commerce today and only a small fraction of these chemicals have been tested for effects on human health.

I am very pleased that health care is using its purchasing power to promote the use of greener medical products in facilities across the U.S. In 2010, Kaiser Permanente developed the Sustainability Scorecard to rate the $1 billion in medical supplies it purchases each year on how eco-friendly and non-toxic they are. The scorecard was the first of its kind for the health care industry and enabled Kaiser Permanente to better select products that don’t contain harmful chemicals, while also encouraging suppliers to offer more eco-friendly supplies.

Kaiser Permanente isn’t doing this alone. Last fall, five large health care purchasing organizations that buy a combined $135 billion medical products each year announced they endorsed the “Standardized Environmental Questions for Medical Products" (PDF). This new tool, created with help from the non-profit group Practice Greenhealth and based on Kaiser Permanente’s Sustainability Scorecard, includes a set of questions designed to push manufacturers to make greener medical products.

Continuing its momentum in green purchasing, Kaiser Permanente announced this week it is converting its intravenous (IV) medical equipment, including its IV solution bags and IV tubing, to safer and more eco-friendly alternatives. The new IV solution bags are free of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and DEHP (di-2-ethyl hexyl phthalate), two chemicals used in plastics that have been shown to harm human and environmental health. The IV tubing is DEHP-free. Kaiser Permanente purchases 4.9 million IV tubing sets and 9.2 million solution bags per year. This single step affects nearly 100 tons of medical products. And what’s more, the move saves the organization close to $5 million a year, proving that going green can save money as well.

Some other successes include:

  • Rigid endoscopes that use steam instead of chemical sterilization eliminating the use of 17,000 cassettes of chemicals annually
  • PVC-free carpet that is fully recyclable
  • PVC-free and DEHP-free patient-controlled analgesia sets
  • New fabrics that are free of vinyl, heavy metals and volatile organic compounds

The U.S. health care industry spends more than $200 billion annually on medical and non-medical products. It is our hope that through greener supply chain efforts, such as Kaiser Permanente’s Sustainability Scorecard, organizations can have a direct, positive effect on individual and community health both in health care, and in other industries as well.


Photo of IV bag and tubing via Shutterstock.com.