The ubiquitous exposure to man-made synthetic chemicals in everyday life has increasingly become a health concern. Unfortunately, many products used in healthcare can contribute to hazardous exposures, including cleaners and disinfectants, phthalates in medical devices, flame retardants in furniture and electronic equipment, formaldehyde in furniture, and solvents in labs, among many others.
A growing body of scientific research is raising the level of concern about the health impacts of chronic chemical exposures. We now know that:
- Even very small doses of synthetic chemicals can cause disease
- Children and developing babies are most vulnerable
- Hundreds of synthetic chemicals are found in human breast milk and in the cord blood of babies in the womb.
Chemicals can mimic hormones in our body, disrupting our delicately balanced systems at low levels of exposure, and potentially causing harm in combination. As chemical use has increased in industrialised societies, so have chemical-related diseases, including cancer, asthma, birth defects, developmental disabilities, autism, endometriosis, and infertility. Mounting scientific evidence links the incidence of these diseases, in part, to the exposure to environmental toxicants contained by every day products that can be absorbed by our bodies.
Healthcare institutions have a particular ethical responsibility to use products containing chemicals that pose less risk to human health. Due to its massive buying power, the health care system can play a key role in shifting the economy towards green chemistry. A growing number of hospitals are taking a "better safe than sorry" approach to chemicals — eliminating suspected hazards and switching to safer alternatives. Benefits of this approach to the bottom line can include reduced disposal costs, reduced liability and improved health for patients and workers.
While the healthcare sector can do its part to reduce people's exposure to hazardous chemicals, government policies must also be reformed. Due to weak laws, chemical companies do not provide basic health and safety data for the majority of chemicals on the market. Even with clear evidence of harm, it is extremely difficult to stop the use of a chemical. To protect public health, laws must be changed to require better health data on chemicals, to eliminate the worst chemicals and untested chemicals, to protect communities at highest risk and to provide incentives for the development of new safer chemicals. Forward-thinking legislators and governments are already moving in this direction.
High-priority chemicals include:
- Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs)
- Chemicals that are carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction (CMRs)
- PVC (Vinyl plastic) and phthalates
- Brominated flame-retardants
- Disinfectants and fragance chemicals