Physicians promise “to do no harm,” but they are often doctoring in the presence of materials that are dangerous to human health. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, which operates 23 offices in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, has joined a growing movement of medical providers seeking to reduce client exposure to such toxic chemicals. “Health Care Without Harm” recognizes these substances have been linked to cancer, infertility and low-birth-weight babies.
Numerous recent studies — including one released two weeks ago at the Vermont Statehouse — have turned up high levels of dangerous chemicals in regular citizens derived from everyday items such as baby bottles and car upholstery. Substances such as bisphenol A (BPA), mercury, organochlorine pesticides and fire retardants appear to increase the risk of birth defects and neurological damage, among other health problems.
The “Health Care Without Harm” movement specifically looks at medical devices, medical waste and hospital food, and how they contribute to illness. In 1996, after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified medical waste as a leading source of carcinogenic dioxin, 28 organizations came together to found a formal coalition whose mission is to ensure that health care providers eliminate practices that harm people and the environment.
While PPNNE is not an official member of Health Care Without Harm, it is working to achieve the same goals, according to Ellen Starr, a nurse practitioner and vice president of health care operations for PPNNE. The first step, she says, was to look at what is going on at their health centers that “could potentially be exposing people to something unhealthy.” After an audit of their facilities, PPNNE decided to get rid of all latex and vinyl gloves and replace them with nitrile gloves. Then they moved on to devices that contained mercury; all old blood-pressure cuffs and thermometers were phased out.
Currently, PPNNE is focusing on cleaning supplies. Finding “green” products has been a challenge, Starr says, because they must also adhere to OSHA requirements. PPNNE has partnered with Burlington-based Seventh Generation to work on developing industrial-strength, nontoxic cleaning agents.
Facility renovations, too, have to pass the eco-responsibility test. This entails selecting nontoxic paints, carpeting and office equipment.
There’s also an outreach component to PPNNE’s initiative. The organization recently started a blog called “Good Chemistry,” and Heather Weinstein, program manager for education and training, is hosting house parties to teach women about the toxic substances in cosmetics. Many, such as lipstick and mascara, include heavy metals — lead, nickel, cadmium and aluminum, to name a few. Paying more for personal-care products doesn’t guarantee they’re any safer.
Starr and her colleagues know consumers can’t shop their way out of this problem. So PPNNE is pushing the Vermont legislature to pass a comprehensive chemical reform bill, as well as a law banning the use of BPA in children’s products, such as baby bottles and sippy cups. To date, 27 states have banned products containing BPA. “As more states pass these laws, it will be too costly for companies to have two separate products,” Starr predicts. “And the federal government will follow the states.”
The comprehensive chemical reform bill, sponsored by Rep. Willem Jewett (D-Ripton), is patterned after a similar law passed in Maine that would seek to establish a toxic chemical identification and reduction program in the state. Products with chemicals that are considered of “high concern” — those that have known carcinogens or mutagens with the potential to interrupt reproductive, developmental or endocrine functioning — may be banned. Children’s products containing a priority chemical would be prohibited from sale or distribution in the state.
Thirty-six representatives signed onto the bill, which is currently being reviewed by the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife & Water Resources.
Ultimately, the goal of Starr and others fighting to eliminate toxic chemicals from consumer products is to persuade federal lawmakers to overhaul the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. The TSCA grandfathered in 62,000 chemicals and does not require industry to prove the safety of chemicals before they are used in consumer products. Since the law was passed 34 years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency has only restricted the use of five chemicals and has required testing for fewer than 200.
“People assume that the U.S. government is protecting us,” Starr says, “but they’re not.”