Green Health Care

Hospitals are becoming healthier places due to new efforts to protect the environment.

By Sharon Tregaskis


green hospitals are more common in healthcareLast year, the Baltimore Medical System's new Highlandtown Healthy Living Center served nearly 15,000 patients—many of them uninsured immigrants for whom English is a second language—in a sparkling new $11.5 million clinical facility in East Baltimore. Sunlight stands in for fluorescent bulbs in patient-care spaces. Formaldehyde-free, low-VOC building materials reduce toxic exposures for staff and patients. Even the cleaning products are environmentally friendly, while the art on the walls—made from found and reused materials—explores the relationship between human health and that of the planet. A fourth-floor terrace garden promotes reflection and contemplation in the bustling inner-city neighborhood, and a rain garden along the sidewalk diverts stormwater from flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.

"We want to reduce the disparities and other causes that lead to poor health outcomes, such as asthma, diabetes, and obesity," says BMS President and CEO Jay Wolvovsky. "By designing a facility that focuses on health through environmental awareness, we hope to bring about another level of change in promoting a healthier Baltimore."

The United States' $2.6 trillion health-care industry generates more than 4 billion pounds of trash annually. Inpatient health-care facilities rank second only to food-processing facilities in energy consumption. A growing number of healthcare professionals see a fundamental conflict between their Hippocratic oath to "do no harm" and the environmental consequences of the industry's by-products, including discarded chemotherapy drugs, expired pharmaceuticals, caustic cleaning supplies, and dioxin generated by medical-waste incinerators, as well as the climate effects of intensive energy consumption. As a result, they're taking steps to transform the way they do business—reducing waste, improving indoor air quality, boosting energy efficiency, and promoting health through on-site farmers' markets and healthier cafeteria offerings.

"Hospitals operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They're resource-intensive, and they're subject to really strict regulations and fire codes," says architect Robin Guenther, a principal at Perkins+Will and author of Green Guide for Health Care.

"As a result, they tend to be buildings that contain a lot of petrochemical-based plastic materials laden with chemical flame retardants. They're beginning to discover that there are ways to both do good for patient care and do good for the environment at the same time."

Efforts to clean up the industry first made headlines in the late 1980s when medical refuse washed up on East Coast beaches. In 1998, the American Hospital Association, the American Nurses Association, and the Environmental Protection Agency made a joint pledge to cut medical waste in half by 2010, forming the organization now known as Practice Greenhealth. Health Care Without Harm, founded in 1996, helped shutter several thousand medical-waste incinerators nationwide and create tougher emissions standards for those that remain.

Today, the group boasts nearly 500 member organizations in 50 countries. Meanwhile, the nonprofit Teleosis Institute implores the industry to "do more good" through green pharmaceuticals management and low-impact clinical practices.