The Community Coalition for Environmental Justice (CCEJ), a group powered by two staff members in the Central District, is butting heads again with the Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VA) in Beacon Hill over the use of medical equipment they claim leaks toxic chemicals.
CCEJ takes credit for shutting down the VA Hospital's incinerator last year in a grassroots effort to cut out dioxin -- a chemical associated with Vietnam-era Agent Orange. But now the hospital won't tell CCEJ what it's doing with the waste. So CCEJ is focusing on the hospital equipment that makes toxic waste in the first place. The group is knocking on doors in South Seattle to keep local pressure on the hospital to replace the potentially dangerous materials, polyvinyl chloride plastic (PVC) and mercury, used in such health care lifelines as IV bags and thermometers.
"These kinds of chemicals can cause cancer and nerve system disorders," says CCEJ staffer Kristine Wong. Wong has pressed for a meeting with hospital leaders, but "they haven't been responsive to us," she says.
CCEJ says research shows that standard IV bag material, PVC plastic, not only emits dioxin during production and disposal, but can also leak toxins during its intended use. With concerns like this in mind, King County and the Environmental Protection Agency hired consultant David Stitzhal to help look at alternatives. Although the final word is not yet in on whether PVC should be taken out of circulation, insiders like Stitzhal are convinced the material is dangerous. "Some of the research I'm seeing would make me hesitant to get an IV solution from a [PVC] IV bag," Stitzhal says.
But the Beacon Hill hospital wants to be left alone. The VA Hospital, part of a federally funded system of public hospitals serving veterans (there are more than 700,000 in Washington state), maintains this is not a local issue. "It's a manufacturing issue and a health and safety issue," says beleaguered hospital spokesperson Jeri Rowe. She adds that the hospital complies with federal standards, and has no independent authority to change its equipment-buying habits.
However, CCEJ and its national affiliate, Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), are not about to relent after racking up successes elsewhere. The agency has more than 240 member organizations (including CCEJ and the Washington Toxics Coalition), and has made deals with more than 100 hospitals, including two in Oregon, which have sworn off mercury.
HCWH co-coordinator and registered nurse Charlotte Brody thinks hospitals shouldn't wait for hazards to become illegal before fixing them. "We don't believe that the solution to everything is federal law," says Brody. "When we know how to do something smarter, cleaner, and safer, we'll do it."