Kaiser Permanente, one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit health care systems, announced a phase out Tuesday of toxic flame retardants in upholstered furniture used in their hospitals, medical offices and other buildings.
The decision — a first for health care — will impact more than 38 hospitals and 600 medical offices in eight states and the District of Columbia. The announcement was made at the annual CleanMed conference on health and sustainability.
Kaiser Permanente spends more than $30 million dollars on furniture for its facilities each year and uses its supply chain dollars to move the market toward healthier materials, products and equipment. They see sustainability as both an environmental and community benefit and have focused for years on increasing energy conservation, green building and environmentally preferable purchasing.
“We want manufacturers to switch to new products, and that won’t happen without customer demand. In addition to putting our $30 million on the table, we are working with other hospitals through the Healthier Hospitals Initiative to add more hospitals to the list,” said Kathy Gerwig, vice president of employee safety, health and wellness, and Kaiser Permanente’s environmental stewardship officer.
Kaiser Permanente’s decision follows a recently updated flammability standard for upholstered furniture, TB117-2013, adopted by the State of California. The standard can be met without the use of toxic flame retardants. The move by California follows mounting evidence of the negative health impacts of flame retardants on people and evidence demonstrating the ineffectiveness of flame retardants in fire suppression. When facilities are sprinklered, the intended fire suppression effects of flame retardants are outweighed by their toxicity and their impact on human and environmental health.
“These chemicals are toxic, they build up in the body and they threaten our health. Flame retardants are the new lead—we need to remove them from our bodies, our homes, our schools and from our hospitals,” said Gary Cohen, president and founder of Health Care Without Harm and the Healthier Hospitals Initiative.
Concern about flame retardants has become more intense in recent years. CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, M.D., reported in 2013 on safety and health concerns. This includes links between flame retardants found in furniture, foam, computers and baby strollers and lower IQ, reproductive issues and cancer in children, pregnant women and the general public. Questions have also arisen about the chemicals’ effectiveness in fire suppression. The California standard was updated to reflect real-life fire scenarios and to address the health effects associated with flame retardants.
“Ten years ago, Kaiser Permanente opted to buy PVC-free carpet and we were joined in that switch by many other health care and educational institutions,” Gerwig said. “That’s how you change the market.”
While the transition will take some time, several furniture manufacturers have been working hard to move away from chemicals of concern like toxic flame retardants, perfluorinated compounds, formaldehyde and vinyl, as highlighted by the Healthier Hospitals Initiative’s Healthy Interiors Challenge. Furniture and material manufacturers like Hayworth, Steelcase, Herman Miller, and Construction Specialties (to name a few) are working hard to find safer alternatives.
Hospitals, like Kaiser Permanente, Beaumont Health System, Advocate Healthcare, and University Hospitals Health System, are recognizing that a commitment to health includes a commitment to safer materials for patients, visitors and their communities.
And, with 18 percent of the GDP, hospitals have the supply chain dollars to send a message loud and clear, helping to move the market toward safer materials that support healthier environments.
Top image of hospital lobby by Sam Stanton via Flickr