Making our Hospitals Greener: The Implications of Styrofoam

I’ve always been interested in issues of sustainability. Admittedly, I’m usually the guy pulling bottles and cans out of the trash or trying to get the office to start a recycling program. In early 2011, my interests led me to Eureka Recycling, a local non-profit recycling provider and zero-waste advocacy organization, working as their recycled paper co-op intern. At our annual steward summit an organization called the BlueGreen Alliance came to speak to our group. BlueGreen Alliance is a national organization that is a coalition of unions and environmental groups, working towards common goals of sustainability and promoting jobs in the green economy. I remembered their name as participants of Eureka’s paper co-op, so I engaged them after the presentation as to how I could get involved. With the support of SEIU I was encouraged to work at BGA part time, and I began working at BGA on a variety of sustainability issues pertaining to the healthcare industry.

My time at BGA has led to the engagement of my own hospital and greater Allina network. The first of what I am hoping leads to a variety of green healthcare initiatives is to address the use of polystyrene (Styrofoam) cups and dinnerware in Allina facilities.

Even today as most major corporations like McDonalds and Starbucks have committed to eliminating polystyrene, many people don’t fully realize the environmental impact from the production and disposal of these products. Polystyrene is one of the largest contributors of hazardous waste, polluting our air and waterways, threatening the ecosystem and depleting the ozone. As a virtually indestructible product, polystyrene takes centuries to decompose. This means as landfills deteriorate, these harmful substances will leak back into our soil and water supplies. The Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education estimates that up to one third of all matter in landfills is polystyrene. If combusted, it releases 57 chemical byproducts into our air, including carbon monoxide. As one of the largest contributors to pollution in our waterways, over 100 U.S., Canadian, European and Asian coastal cities have officially banned the use of these products. Polystyrene is also made with chlorofluorocarbons (HCFC’s) that deplete the ozone and contribute to global warming at 1,000 times the rate of carbon dioxide.

So there are plenty of environmental and indirect health implications regarding the use of polystyrene. However, what isn’t as widely recognized is the vast amount of health affects regarding the people manufacturing these products and the even greater population of people who use these products every day. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Health included styrene, the building block of polystyrene to its list of human carcinogens. The health hazards of styrene exposure range from affects on the mucus membrane, gastrointestinal problems, central nervous system dysfunction, hearing loss, depression, eye irritation and fatigue. There are also studies that suggest exposure increases the risk of leukemia, lymphoma, pregnancy complications and menstrual disorders.

Chronic exposure is a huge health hazard to the workers who manufacture these products but there is a growing concern for the health implications for those who use these products every day in offices, cafeterias and restaurants. Especially when heated or microwaved, polystyrene products begin to leach hazardous chemicals back into the contents that they are holding. So in addition to polluting our water, air and soil we are also slowly affecting our health, simply for convenience.

I urge everyone to think about these realities the next time you microwave your lunch, buy some soup or coffee from the cafeteria, or are giving a patient or visitor a drink of water, all using polystyrene products. We dedicate our lives to patient care and the safety of our fellow coworkers. We stress the importance of preventative healthcare measures and feel the economic pressures of patient satisfaction surveys (HCAHPS). We commit ourselves to community outreach and giving. However, all of these things are compromised by something as seemingly insignificant as what kind of containers we eat and drink from. As healthcare workers I think we are in a unique position of authority and responsibility to maintain a leadership role in every area of patient care.

This is not to suggest that this is a simple issue. The economic and logistic obstacles of implementing an alternative are very real. Change takes time and often requires public education and political will. However, success is not unprecedented. I liken this to past issues, such as moving to smoke-free facilities or making the commitment to go mercury-free. Both took time to implement and came with economic obstacles. However, when considering the health and well-being of patients, visitors, staff and the greater community these obstacles become manageable.

Peter Mielech is a transport Aide at United Hospital and a SEIU union steward.

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