It is humbling to receive the Rachel Carson award -- she was a marine biologist and conservationist whose book Silent Spring and other writings are credited with advancing the global environmental movement. Thank you so much to the Environmental Issues Committee of the American Industrial Hygiene Association for this honor.
For over ten years, I worked as a Director for Maryland Hospitals for a Healthy Environment – aka MD H2E -- whose focus was creating a culture of environmental health and sustainability in Maryland’s health care community with particular focus on three populations: patients, staff, and community members.
My first task at MD H2E was to write a technical memo explaining to hospitals the regulatory and health issues for managing fluorescent bulbs and other mercury containing devices. In 1996, bulb crushers were prevalent in hospitals; and batteries, old computers, TVs and electronic devices were routinely discarded to Onsite Incinerators – which we jokingly said could be listed on the national register of historic places. There was work to be done here to protect patients, staff and communities from potential exposures to mercury, dioxins, and other materials that negatively impact health.
As a means to reduce the use of toxic pesticides in hospitals to improve environmental and health conditions, I worked with a team to conduct hospital pest audits. We surveyed under and behind ice machines, in grease traps, supply closets; and anywhere staff indicated they saw pests. For instance, in one Baltimore hospital, nurses pointed to the door the ants routinely came marching in; and showed us which ceiling tiles roaches fell through. Intuitively and scientifically, spraying pesticides in places where vulnerable populations are trying to heal is not healthy. In the literal spirit of Rachel Carson, whose work spurred national pesticide policy and led to a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides, MD H2E guided facilities across the state to implement integrated pest management programs, including a 300 acre hospital campus that went pesticide free.
In creating a healthcare sustainability audit tool for greening the operating room, I am researching operating room ventilation from efficiency, environmental, and health perspectives. Just as it is crucial to minimize staff and patient exposures to surgical smoke and waste anesthetic gasses, it is important to minimize venting anesthetic gasses to the environment as many are potent greenhouse gasses. At the same time, to be cost effective OR can lower air exchange rates in unoccupied rooms and switch to LED lights to reduce environmental impact and save money; all the while maintaining excellent patient quality.
Environmental health and sustainability is my life’s work and passion. I am optimistic that now, as an honorary IH, we can work across disciplines to effectively improve the health and lives of vulnerable populations.