Hospitals going green

Green hospital sign

KAI RYSSDAL: Hospitals are businesses. Some of them for profit. Some not. But all of them are in the business of saving lives. To do that, they often use equipment and materials that contain toxic chemicals. Deadly ones. Which pose their own health risks. So increasingly, hospitals are rethinking the way they work. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Shia Levitt has more.


SHIA LEVITT: At the site of a future Kaiser Permanente facility in Modesto, California, construction supervisor Mike Hrast walks underneath scaffolding covered in protective plastic sheets into what will soon be a hospital hallway.
MIKE HRAST:"Directly above us would be the ICU rooms, above that would be the labor and delivery rooms . . .

It may seem like an ordinary construction site, but Kaiser is trying something new here. The company is adopting health-conscious standards that are forcing them to rethink nearly every aspect of hospital design, construction, and operations.

MIKE HRAST:"People are coming there, they trust you to be providing them with the best health care you can. Anything that even has a suspicion about carcinogens or dioxins in it, you should be removing from your building."

Take mercury for example. The stuff in old fashioned thermometers and in a lot of blood pressure cuffs. Doctor Ted Schettler is the science advisor for the group Health Care without Harm. He says mercury products are hard to dispose of and often end up in the environment.

DR. TED SCHETTLER: "If a pregnant woman eats fish that are contaminated with mercury, that fish will get into the developing brain of her fetus and will cause damage. So, choices made with regard to materials in hospitals can have public health impacts that may then come back into the hospital as a sick patient."

That's why Kaiser is trying to get rid of mercury, along with other harmful chemicals, in everything from its medical equipment to the electrical switches in its boiler rooms and chillers. And they're not the only ones making changes. More than 80 other hospitals have launched similar projects using a manual called the Green Guide for Health Care. Some are revamping existing hospitals, while others are building new facilities from the ground up. Architect Robin Guenther is co-author of the guide.

ROBIN GUENTHER:"It seemed to us that if we wanted health care to take on green building, we had to frame it in a way that it was good for human health as much as it's good for the environment."

Construction workers are smoothing out the welding on iron pipes at the Modesto site. Hrast says Kaiser is testing strategies and products in Modesto that they are hoping to make national standards. Kaiser has also flexed its muscles to push suppliers to offer so-called "green" alternatives where none exist.

MIKE HRAST:"Kaiser has a $20 billion appetite over the next 10 years in construction. We're telling vendors, here's what we want from you, don't tell us what you're going to give us. If you can provide what we want, then you get the contract with Kaiser."

For example, the backing on carpet is often made from polyvinyl chloride, or PVC plastic. Hrast says it can leak chemicals into the hospital air that trigger asthma. And the manufacturing process for PVC releases dioxin, a known carcinogen. So Kaiser asked its vendors to develop a PVC-free carpet. The company that did so won an exclusive contract to carpet all new Kaiser buildings for the next 3 years. Hrast says Kaiser also benefits financially from making these changes.

MIKE HRAST:"We saved, at a minimum, $238,000 in this project, just by implementing green.

Hrast says the new environmentally safe paving he used in the parking lot will save Kaiser's maintenance dollars. And although some upfront expenses may be higher, the design and architecture plans should also reduce water, heating and air conditioning costs.

MIKE HRAST:"Green has that stigmatism to a lot of contractors and architects out there that it costs more money. And we like to be the example out here that it doesn't, it saves you money if it's done right and it's well-thought out and it's integrated into your design process."

Kaiser's Modesto facility is expected to be completed by late 2007.

In Modesto, California, I'm Shia Levitt for Marketplace.

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