Hospitals are supposed to be healing spaces, not community purveyors of frightening substances like neurotoxins and dioxins. But, considering the volumes of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic devices used in medical settings-plastics that leech chemicals called phthalates-and the mercury-containing equipment used and infectious waste incinerated daily, that’s pretty much what they have been.

Fortunately, many hospitals around the country, including ours, are responding to a call for change. According to Stacy Malkan of the nonprofit Healthcare without Harm, just a decade ago there were 3,000 medical waste incinerators in America spewing fumes from burned infectious waste into the air. The Environmental Protection Agency reported these fumes contained 50 times the mercury of what is emitted from municipal waste incinerators. But, thanks in part to Healthcare without Harm’s campaign, there are less than 100 of them today.

Cottage Health System (CHS) has made laudable progress in switching to earth-friendly practices. CHS Director of Public Affairs Janet O’Neill said all the mercury-containing equipment at its facilities has been replaced with healthy alternatives (with the exception of the new, energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs, which contain small amounts of mercury; these, however, are recycled). Non-PVC tubing has been substituted for PVC tubing at all CHS facilities (think intravenous lines, catheters, and feeding tubes). Plus, O’Neill said, other classes of PVC devices might be similarly replaced later. Malkan said this would be particularly important with regard to devices used on pregnant women, children, and infants.

The three Cottage Hospitals send their infectious waste off-site for disposal. That’s good for Santa Barbara, but it is important to learn what is happening to it at the end of the line. Is it simply being burned somewhere else?

Even more greening is evident in the design of the hospital’s new childcare center. O’Neill said it would be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified. Specifically, 20-40 percent of the center’s energy will be solar-generated, it will contain bamboo floors, and its construction wood derived from forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Though administrators were under some pressure to apply LEED standards to the new hospital currently under construction, the costs were deemed prohibitive, O’Neill said. Still, efforts have been made to lessen the new building’s impact on the environment, among them the use of energy-efficient electrical and plumbing systems, the installation of large windows to provide passive light, and the inclusion of green space. Also, employees are encouraged to use alternative transportation to and from work with an impressive array of bike racks, lockers, and showers in the new garage, a 50 percent subsidy of MTD bus passes, and tickets on the Clean Air Express between Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, and Ventura.

The hospital cafeterias, which cook and serve an average of 2,300 meals daily, now use biodegradable potato and cornstarch paper plates and recyclable hot and cold paper cups. Styrofoam takeout containers and traditional plastic utensils are still provided but hopefully not for long, O’Neill said.

Just last week, Cottage Hospital’s main cafeteria became one of two kitchens in the city to test a composting program. Considering this kitchen cooks and serves upward of 1,700 meals per day, the mass of eggshells, orange peels, and carrot tops sidestepping the landfill will be mind-boggling.


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