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Health Care Without Harm

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The Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors includes this as a starting point: “First, do no harm.” So it comes as a surprise to many in the health care professions – and those in surrounding communities – that medical waste incineration is among the nation's largest source of dioxin and mercury emissions. Dioxin is released when PVC and other chlorinated plastics are incinerated, and mercury is emitted when medical equipment is burned. These substances disperse into the air, water, and soils of surrounding neighborhoods that house just the people the medical professionals are charged with healing.

Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) was conceived in September 1996 to address these concerns. Through HCWH, health-care professionals, labor union members, and others have succeeded in closing medical waste incinerators in communities nationwide. BFI, one of the largest medical waste incinerator companies, now is proposing a switch to a more environmentally sound waste disposal technology. McGaw, Inc. has started making IV bags out of non-chlorinated plastics. More than 100 people, including nurses and doctors, have taken “adopt-a-hospital” trainings, which train people to be effective advocates of sustainable practics and procurement policies in hospitals.

At least in part as a result of the awareness raised by this campaign, EPA has issued stricter standards on medical waste incinerators and entered negotiations with the American Hospital Association aimed at eliminating mercury use in the health care industry and vastly reducing dioxin emissions in the medical waste stream.


Elise Miller is the executive director of the Jenifer Altman Foundation, which has taken a leading role in urging the phase-out of mercury, dioxin and other endocrine disrupting chemicals.

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