There are certain days each year that call for reflection. Maybe it’s your birthday, or an anniversary. For some people, it’s a holiday: Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day. We take stock of where we are, what we’ve done, and what we’ve yet to do.
For me, it is Earth Day. What have I done – what have we done – since last April 22 to better care for this planet? It seems news of climate change and how it can affect human health gets more and more dire every day. But forces of good are at work behind the scenes, and I think we must accentuate the positive – without ever losing our drive for real, meaningful change.
Environmental savvy is not often associated with the health care industry, but maybe it should be. Last summer Health Care Without Harm, an international coalition of hospitals, health care systems, medical professionals, and other interested groups, launched the Health Care Climate Council. Comprised of 13 health systems representing 364 hospitals in cities around the globe, the Council’s mission is to find ways the health sector can mitigate climate change, and stem the numerous health problems that climate change causes.
Proudly, Hackensack University Medical Center (HackensackUMC) is among this baker’s dozen of concerned health systems. As the US Environmental Protection Agency notes on its website, hospitals provide significant contributions to the communities they serve; however, they also tend to have a huge environmental footprint.
According to the EPA, US hospitals collectively generate approximately 7,000 tons of waste per day; use medical devices containing mercury and other toxic materials; and consume large amounts of energy and water for a variety of purposes, among other environmentally threatening practices. Through the initiatives of The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center,HackensackUMC has reduced its carbon footprint by more than 25,000 Metric Ton Carbon Dioxide Equivalents. That’s roughly the same amount of annual greenhouse gas emissions from 5,400 vehicles, or carbon dioxide emissions from the annual energy use of 2,340 homes.
HackensackUMC is also the first hospital in the country to partner with the recycling pioneer TerraCycle, which keeps difficult-to-recycle items – like keyboards, diaper packaging, and writing utensils – out of landfills, and helps turn them into affordable, eco-friendly consumer products. We’ve also eliminated the use of polystyrene foam food containers; stopped purchasing furniture treated with toxic flame retardant chemicals; and of course, implemented the Greening The Cleaning program, which replaces hazardous cleaning agents with environmentally responsible, less-toxic alternatives.
It’s important to highlight all that HackensackUMC and other institutions have done to improve not only the health of their patients, but also of the planet – because the Earth’s well-being greatly impacts our own.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama highlighted the numerous threats climate change poses to the American people. Rising temperatures can lead to increased pollution, which in turn triggers lung problems like asthma and COPD, and has also been linked to heart disease, autism, and cancer. Brutal heat waves and frigid cold spells are especially dangerous to the health of vulnerable populations like children, the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. Extreme weather events like hurricanes can cause injury, while regional droughts threaten to impact the food supply of the entire country.
We’re all in this together. No person, no business is immune to the effects of climate change, whether they acknowledge it or not. The longer some people live with their heads in the (smog-filled) clouds, the more other people suffer with illnesses, injuries, or devastating circumstances that arise because our planet is sick. Consider what you might do to help, on Earth Day and all days – and then do it. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still.”