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Ecology Center joins appeal to manufacturers: 'Adopt principles in support of safer chemicals'

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Chicago Tribune series prompts call for safer products in health care facilities
July 30, 2012

Tracey Easthope, environmental health director at the Ecology Center, is among the national leaders calling on manufacturers to make sure the interior furnishings they supply to hospitals are free of halogenated flame retardants (HFRs) when there are safer alternatives.

The appeal by the group Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) follows an investigative series in the Chicago Tribune in May that exposed the chemical industry’s deceptive tactics about the safety and efficacy of HFRs.

In a letter sent earlier this month, HCWH urged product manufacturers to reformulate their products and adopt safer chemical policies outlined in the Guiding Principles for Safer Chemicals developed by the Business-NGO Working Group (BizNGO), a collaboration of leaders in business and non-governmental organizations creating a roadmap for businesses interested in moving to safer chemicals and sustainable materials.

“Hospitals take very seriously the links between chemicals in the environment and rising rates of disease among Americans,” according to Gary Cohen, president of Health Care Without Harm. “They are committed to use their purchasing power to move toward safer alternatives, and to help drive our economy toward safer products. With billions of dollars in purchasing annually, health care can help shift the entire marketplace toward products that are safer for people and the environment.”

Concerns about some flame retardants and other hazardous chemicals are not new, but were given added impetus by the Tribune’s coverage.

“The Chicago Tribune investigation has opened our eyes to the extent to which the chemical industry will go to protect its profits,” said Cohen. “In a country with epidemic chronic illnesses, many of which are linked to chemicals and other environmental pollutants, we need to help create the demand for the manufacture of safer alternatives.”

“Current government regulation is inadequate to safeguard the public from toxic chemicals,” Easthope said. The federal Toxic Substances Control Act has not been updated since the 1970s, she noted. “As a result, chemicals can enter the marketplace without being adequately tested for their health or environmental consequences."

Moreover, it can be difficult to get information on chemical ingredients in products and any safety testing that has been conducted. An update to federal chemical regulation cleared a Senate committee last week, but progress has been slow.

“In the meantime, leading companies are adopting forward-looking policies, including the Guiding Principles for Safer Chemicals,” Easthope said. “When the government does not or cannot remove unsafe chemicals from the market, hospitals in particular have an obligation to seek safer alternatives.”

Halogenated flame retardants can be found in a variety of furniture and furnishings such as mattresses, drapery, carpets, curtains, clothing, and other items commonly used in hospitals and homes.

The effort around HFRs is just the latest move made by the health care sector to help encourage safer product development in the marketplace. In November of last year, the health care sector’s group purchasing organizations (GPOs) asked their vendors to provide information on chemicals of concern in their medical products in an effort to understand their relative environmental attributes.

HCWH is an international coalition of more than 508 organizations, including the Ecology Center, in 53 countries, working to transform the health care industry worldwide, without compromising patient safety or care, so that it is ecologically sustainable and no longer a source of harm to public health and the environment.

For more information, contact: Tracey Easthope, Environmental Health Director, tracey@ecocenter.org