Going to Waste
By Eric Weltman
do no harm," the physician's credo, is being violated by the nation's
hospitals, which rank among the leading sources of dioxin and mercury
pollution. The culprits: incinerators that burn infectious waste laden
with mercury and plastic medical devices.
In 1994, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that medical waste incinerators were the leading source of dioxin, a toxin linked to a spectrum of health effects, including cancer, reproductive disorders and immune system dysfunction. The EPA also estimated that medical waste incinerators are the No. 4 source of mercury, a potent neurotoxin. Both toxins share the nefarious distinction of traveling up the food chain, with dioxin concentrating in meat and dairy products and mercury building up in fish.
The irony of hospitals being major polluters was not lost on environmentalists
who launched the Health Care Without Harm Campaign (HCWH) in 1996 to promote
a green transformation of the industry. Today, HCWH's members include
more than 250 environmental, public health and labor organizations, such
as Greenpeace, the Breast Cancer Fund and the American Nurses Association.
The coalition also includes some hospitals, such as Boston's New England
Medical Center and New York's Beth Israel, as well as two Catholic health