Kaiser Permanente Takes Stand on Flame-Retardant Furniture

The decision follows California’s update of its flammability standard for upholstered furniture.

Kaiser Permanente will become the first health system in the country to stop purchasing flame-retardant-treated furniture based on concerns over exposure to potential toxins.

“We want to buy furniture that does not contain flame retardants and meets the new California standards,” said Kathy Gerwig, vice president of employee safety, health and wellness, and Kaiser Permanente’s environmental stewardship officer.

The decision follows California’s update of its flammability standard for upholstered furniture. The new rules allow furniture makers to meet standards without using fire-retardant chemicals, which studies show offer no significant benefit in the fire safety performance of furniture.

Worse, says Gary Cohen, president and founder of Health Care Without Harm and the Healthier Hospitals Initiative (HHI), flame retardants are “the new lead,” building up in bodies to threaten health.  He said chemicals used as flame retardants have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and “brain damage in children.”

Cohen adds that current legislation in Congress should be called “the chemical industry protection act” and that “in the absence of federal reform, we’ll continue to push the marketplace to reform.”

Kaiser’s decision will impact its own system of 38 hospitals and 600 medical offices in eight states and the District of Columbia – including Oregon and Washington -- serving 9.3 million members.  Working with its furniture manufacturers to meet this revised standard, Kaiser expects to see safer furnishings in its hospitals within the next one to three years.

Willy Paul, executive director for national facilities services, Northwest Region, at Kaiser Permanente, oversees 400-500 renovations at any given time in Oregon and Washington.  He said Kaiser spends roughly $30 million nationwide and $2 million in the Northwest each year to furnish its hospitals, medical offices and other buildings with chairs, benches, sofas, tables and other furniture.  Beds and other equipment fall into a different category.  He was not sure how much of that money is spent on upholstered furniture.

But Paul believes the move will have an impact beyond Kaiser and the healthcare sector.  If upholstered furniture made without flame retardants “becomes available for us, other industries will have the product available.”

HHI reports that the healthcare industry represents 18 percent of the entire U.S. economy and has a mission to protect health, which gives the sector leverage and credibility. Often a hospital is the largest employer in its community, which gives it added influence.  HHI, Cohen said, is currently working with 1,000 hospitals – about one in five --across the country to protect public health and prevent disease through several sustainability strategies.

Most of HHI’s early sustainability wins came from programs to reduce waste and energy use, said Seema Wadhwa, director of HHI, because of the immediate financial benefits.  “When you waste less, you’re saving more,” she said, as an example.  “There’s cash in the trash.”

Paul said Kaiser is on target to reduce both its carbon footprint and water consumption by 30 percent by 2020, based on a 2008 baseline.

Wadhwa said sustainability traditionally has been viewed in terms of “what impacts we have on the environment.  That has shifted to ‘what impact is the environment having on health?’” Reducing chemicals that are harmful to patients, staff, anybody who walks through the doors presents the next big challenge.

Kaiser has encouraged manufacturers to produce PVC-free carpets and to develop fabrics that eliminate chemicals of concern, including vinyl, heavy metals and volatile organic compounds. More than 50 percent of its overall spending on cleaning products is spent on Green Seal-certified products. And, in 2010, it launched its Sustainability Scorecard to provide preference to eco-friendly suppliers and products. The organization has made the Sustainability Scorecard available to the healthcare industry’s largest group purchasing organizations to advance an estimated $135 billion in annual purchasing of care delivery products that do not use chemicals known to be harmful to human health or the environment.

Wadhwa said sustainability fits Triple Aim targets of improving health of populations, patient satisfaction and cost containment because “sustainability does all of those three things.”

HHI data shows that 75 percent of all healthcare costs are for the treatment of chronic disease, Paul said.  “There’s a definitive link between health of individuals and the health of the environment.”

Jan can be reached at [email protected].




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