Going Green and Fighting Toxins at Home and at Work

Nov. 16, 2009
A nurse with environmental health experience spoke to EHS Today about minimizing contact with everyday toxins and taking steps to create greener workplaces.

“We’re doing a lot of things that are very forward thinking,” said Janel C. Parham, RN, MS, an operating room liaison nurse at Sinai Hospital, which is part of the LifeBridge Health system.

Parham is a member of the LifeBridge Health Green Team, an environmental health committee that formed in 2007. Last year, the Green Team implemented a recycling program for operating rooms. Sinai Hospital recycles operating room saline bottles, blue wrap (which is used to help sterilize instruments) and more. The recycling program, combined with a composting initiative, has “significantly reduced” the facility’s landfill waste, Parham explained.

Helping the environment goes further than these initiatives, however. Parham also educates patients about the toxins they may encounter on a daily basis.

A Toxic Environment

When Parham first began learning about environmental health, she was shocked by the prevalence of toxins in our everyday lives.

“I couldn’t have conceived of the number of things that we expose ourselves to on a regular basis,” she told EHS Today. “In your home, on your way to work, at work … it’s just an endless list of toxins that we have in our environment, intentionally and unintentionally.”

She offered the following tips to reduce exposure to toxins:

  • Water supply – Water can contain lead, arsenic, bacteria and other contaminants. Check municipal water reports, which show minimum accepted levels of substances and what levels actually were found in the water. Or consider ordering home kits to test water right from the tap – sometimes, when water travels through old pipes, it can pick up additional contaminants.
  • Cleaning products – Parham suggested replacing conventional cleaners with those containing more plant-based products. She also said that cleaning with everyday items, such as baking soda and vinegar, can help cut down on toxins.
  • Healthy foods – Pesticide residue on food can produce negative health effects, Parham said. Try to buy organic when possible and read labels of packaged foods to find the healthiest items.
  • Lawn care – Parham described lawn care as a big potential for creating waste, with problems ranging from people over-watering their lawns to using damaging fertilizers that may end up in the water supply. She suggests looking into green alternatives before spraying the lawn with toxic chemicals.
  • Beauty and health products – Parham explained that cosmetics, lotions, shampoos, conditioners and other similar products can all contain toxins. Check labels and try to choose more natural versions.
  • Secondhand smoke – Distancing yourself from smokers, and not allowing anyone to light up at home, are two big ways to eliminate unnecessary toxins from your daily life.

When choosing products, however, don’t be a victim of false advertising, Parham cautioned. “Right now, green is kind of a buzzword,” she said. Consumers therefore need to be careful when choosing so-called green products. “Natural” and “organic,” for example, might not mean much unless there’s a certifying agency or other documentation backing it up.

Finally, it’s not easy being green – so don’t expect to be perfect.

“It’s impossible to eliminate everything, because even if you green your home, you don’t live in a bubble. You have to go outside at some point,” Parham said. “It’s all about having the information so you can make the best decision for your lifestyle.”

Tips for Employers

Parham added that employers could do a few simple things to encourage their employees to lead healthier lifestyles. First, she urged employers with onsite cafeterias to offer healthier foods and provide nutritional information. If the company has a newsletter, including some information every month about healthy eating, solar-powered lights, rechargeable batteries and less-toxic products could help guide employees in a greener (and healthier) direction. She also stressed that a smoking cessation program could vastly improve employee well-being while also reducing the prevalence of toxins.

Finally, employers could take a few hints from LifeBridge Health and implement green building designs and initiatives. In recent months, for example, the facility completed construction of a new atrium and green roof. The atrium lets in natural sunlight to reduce the facility’s energy consumption, and the green roof helps clean rainwater before it enters local waterways. The hospital also composts all food from the cafeteria and recently switched to plant-based cups that break down in the compost pile.

“We’ve had a lot of champions in the system [in the past], we just weren’t working together as one team. Now we have the strength of all the members together,” she explained. “I think together we’re able to come up with stronger ideas and help move the entire system to a greener workplace in general.”

For more information on environmental health and toxins, visit the University of Maryland Environmental Health Education Center Web site. LifeBridge also maintains a special hand washing information site to help combat H1N1 risk.

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