The hospital industry, a major source of harmful mercury pollution, has agreed to work with environmental regulators to clean up its act.
At a ceremony in Chicago last week, the American Hospital Association and officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed a memorandum of understanding that calls for the virtual elimination of mercury from hospital waste by 2005.
The agreement comes less than two weeks after a study found that many hospitals still burn hazardous wastes, including medical devices with mercury, that could be disposed of by safer methods (June 15, p. 16).
In hospitals, mercury can be found in blood pressure machines, thermometers, fluorescent light tubes and batteries. Getting rid of the mercury ultimately means replacing those devices with products that don't use the chemical.
According to the EPA, medical waste accounts for about 16 tons of mercury air emissions each year, or about 10% of the total emitted in the U.S. Mercury typically is emitted by hospital incinerators that burn medical waste.
The voluntary agreement between the industry and the EPA is a way for federal officials to work with the hospital industry to help reduce pollution.
"As promoters of community health, hospitals are committed to doing whatever they can to protect the environment," said Jonathan Lord, M.D., the AHA's chief operating officer.
The voluntary agreement is a far cry from the heavy-handed approach the EPA took last year when it toughened rules on hospital incinerators to minimize harmful emissions (Aug. 25, 1997, p. 84).
The EPA is hopeful overall mercury emissions will decrease as hospitals work to cut the amount of mercury in their waste. Estimates on how much it will cost hospitals to replace mercury devices weren't available.
"Pollution (control) is most effective when government and the private sector work upstream at the source," said William Sanders, director of the EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxic Substances.
Besides reducing mercury, the voluntary agreement calls for plans to reduce all wastes generated by the healthcare industry. Educating the healthcare industry about waste and mercury reduction is a key component of the agreement, which includes the creation of an AHA Environmental Leadership Council. A survey also will be done to collect baseline data on hospitals' pollution prevention efforts.
EPA officials said while a voluntary agreement doesn't have the enforcement powers of formal regulations, they hope it will be successful in reducing pollution.
Sanders said voluntary agreements with industries are part of the reinvention of the EPA.
"This is a much more workable process," he said.