Charlotte Brody, a registered nurse, is a founder and executive director of Health Care Without Harm, an international coalition of 416 organizations in 44 countries working to make health care more environmentally responsible and sustainable.

Monday, 12 May 2003

WASHINGTON, D.C.

A sunny, breezy morning. So I walked across Washington instead of taking the Metro. The azaleas are fading but there are new roses and peonies.

On the way, I passed three pesticide trucks outside of office buildings and apartment houses. Would they be there if the workers and the occupants knew what I know?

I am one of eight people who got their body burden of chemicals tested as part of a Commonweal and Environmental Working Group study. So I know about the pesticides and other pollution in me. My tests showed that my body was carrying 85 contaminants, including 45 carcinogens and 56 chemicals that can impact the brain and nervous system. My blood and urine contained two organochlorine insecticides and four organophosphate pesticides, including the now banned Dursban, made by Dow Chemical.

How did these chemicals get into me? I never use pesticides in my house or garden and I try to buy organic. But the pesticides still could have been on something that I ate or the chemicals may have been sprayed in a room that I walked through. I don’t know. What I do know is that no one knows what the combination of pesticides and dioxins and furans and PCBs and phthalates and metals and volatile organic compounds that I am carrying around is doing to my health.

The chemical industry issues press releases assuring the public that these levels are too low to be dangerous. But the testing that these press releases are based on does not look for the effects from combinations of chemicals or for the subtle or long-term health effects of chemicals on people and the environment.

As a nurse who has spent many hours going over informed consent forms, I get riled up thinking about how the chemical industry enrolled all of us in this giant experiment on our health without having to get our permission. I never got the form.

The chemical industry would say that the body burden we all carry is a small cost to pay for the benefits of modern society. But pollution doesn’t need to be the payment for progress.

That’s been the experience of Health Care Without Harm: The Campaign for Environmentally Responsible Health Care. When we started in 1996, hospitals in the United States were major sources of dioxin and mercury pollution. Today, hospitals are reducing the volume and toxicity of their waste through environmentally responsible purchasing, reuse, and recycling. The waste that remains is decontaminated using non-incineration technologies that do not produce dioxin.

Thousands of hospitals have phased out the use of mercury fever thermometers and blood-pressure devices. All of the major retail pharmacies in the United States have stopped selling mercury fever thermometers and now offer cost-comparable, safer alternatives.

Instead of debating how much mercury is necessary to impact the brain of a developing child or how much dioxin a person can bear before the chance of cancer increases, hospitals are figuring out how to decrease the amount of toxic chemicals that come in the front door and go out the back. Leaders in the health care industry are teaching each other how to use and emit less mercury, less dioxin, less pesticides, and less phthalates. These lessons are finding their way around the globe, as best practices and successful case studies get shared and refined.

The day-to-day work of Health Care Without Harm asks and answers the question, How can we reduce everyone’s body burden of toxic chemicals? I feel lighter for being part of it.