Chemicals in health care

Chemicals are ubiquitous in the hospital environment.  In the U.S., for instance, the health care sector is the single largest user of chemicals, spending more than double the amount spent by the second largest consuming industry sector.  The health sectors in many other countries also consume significant amounts of chemicals.  As the UN Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) points out:

The health care sector is a major consumer of chemicals including those well documented to cause serious impacts on health and the environment. Thus, a sector whose mission it is to protect human health is contributing to the burden of disease. Chemicals in products used in health care affect human health throughout the life cycle of these products –- that is, during production, use and disposal. Vulnerable populations include patients, healthcare workers who experience exposure on a daily basis, factory workers who manufacture the products, workers in waste disposal facilities, and people who live near manufacturing plants or waste disposal sites.

Recent research in some countries has shown that health-sector employees may be more at risk from the chemicals used in their own workplaces than the general public. For example, health sector workers have been reported to have the highest rate of adult asthma among all major occupational groups and to be at a greater risk of developing chronic respiratory illnesses. 

Many chemicals used by the health sector are employed for specific purposes unique to health care, for instance, chemotherapy to treat cancer, or disinfectants for sterilization.  Yet a growing number of hospitals are substituting some of the most hazardous substances with safer alternatives, without sacrificing quality of patient care.  By addressing chemical exposure in health settings, the health sector can not only protect patient and worker health, but also actively demonstrate the safe management of chemicals thereby leading by example.