“This is not something that we can mandate on our own.”
It’s a sentiment that could apply to so much in healthcare. But in this case, it’s one of the many quotes in our compelling cover story, which delves into a complicated topic: how to keep medical supplies and devices safe for patients without potentially sickening people through the processes used to sterilize those products.
It is more than a conundrum. It is a public health issue, and it should be one of the many concerns at the core of the environmental, social responsibility and governance efforts within health systems.
For more than 60 years, ethylene oxide has been used in the healthcare industry to sterilize medical equipment. It’s used in other industries too. The Environmental Protection Agency designated ethylene oxide a human carcinogen in 2016.
Six years later, a trial that recently got underway in Chicago is the first of hundreds of personal injury lawsuits filed by consumers who allege the ethylene oxide emissions from a suburban facility made them sick.
Health disparities reporter Kara Hartnett learned about the issue of ethylene oxide, and its use in healthcare, from speaking with experts in environmental justice.
To tackle the story, she talked with manufacturers and academics, dug through EPA documents, checked in with states that have taken action, and interviewed people who either allege they became sick because of ethylene oxide emissions or are fighting proposals to locate facilities in their communities. She also looked into pilot programs to reduce emissions and into alternative processes that have their own limitations, particularly for healthcare.
In her conversations with health systems, Hartnett found executives intent on looking at their supply chains and trying to reduce their carbon footprint as part of their ESG efforts, which are getting back on track after being derailed by the pandemic.
“Healthcare facilities know ethylene oxide is an issue in their supply chain and they aren’t proud of that,” Hartnett said. “Right now, it’s really about taking that next step to solve it with manufacturers and government agencies without putting people in harm’s way.”