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How Green Was My Hospital II

Gary Baldwin, for HealthLeaders News, June 5, 2007

When it comes to managing waste, Mike Gilmer has his hands full, so to speak. He serves as environmental protection manager at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. It's a teaching facility for medical, dental and allied health professionals, housing some 650 labs and employing some 5000 staff.

I spoke with Mike for my forthcoming feature article in August issue of HealthLeaders magazine. Like many environmental managers, he's a very down-to-earth guy. "My job is waste stream management," he said.

And quite the stream it is. The scope of waste generated at the center demonstrates the environmental challenge facing healthcare institutions. Mike explained how he must contend with four major sources of waste:

  • hazardous chemicals, including paints, oils, and solvents used in lab research.
  • radioactive materials and chemicals generated by radiological studies
  • regulated medical waste, which covers a host of materials such as scalpels, infectious materials from test tubes, and tubing. "Any material with a blood born pathogen," he said.
  • electronics, including lab equipment and computers

The center takes its environmental stewardship seriously. Last year, it won the "Mercury Free Medicine" award from the Hospitals for a Healthy Environment, a non-profit think tank that promotes earth-friendly policies and purchasing practices in healthcare. Mercury is everywhere in hospitals it seems. Not only in thermometers, but also in light switches and devices. "Mercury is an electrical conductor and was widely used in electrical switches," Mike said.

Winning the award required a comprehensive effort. The center replaced all its old thermometers with mercury-free ones. It also replaced more than 100 electrical switches. Technology plays a big role in the center's efforts. Its dental school installed an amalgam separator five years ago, to separate out the mercury from old silver fillings being removed from patients.

The separator cost about $30,000, but it enables the center to capture the heavy metal at the dentist chair. Even old florescent lighting tubes contain mercury. The center has switched to a "green tube," which has inconsequential amounts.

The center ships any mercury it recovers to a hazardous waste vendor in Wisconsin, Mike said. Just a few years, the center was shipping multiple pounds a year, tapping such sources as mercury manometers, which may have contained several pounds. Now it ships just a few grams.

As far as recycling electronics, the center has found an unlikely partner: the Texas prison system. After sorting out old computers that may still be usable by school children, the center ships off the remainder to correctional institutes. There, the prisoners dissemble the computers, culling through recyclable parts. "Laptops have plastic and heavy metals as components," Mike explains. "It is becoming a national problem when people throw computers into the garbage."

Before closing, I'd like to direct you to an article by Stacy Malkan, of Health Care Without Harm, which shows how hospitals across the country are becoming "green" by using innovative construction techniques and new technologies.


Gary Baldwin is technology editor of HealthLeaders magazine. He can be reached at gbaldwin@healthleadersmedia.com.

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