Aiming to make its hospitals and medical offices healthier for people, Kaiser Permanente Northwest, the nonprofit health care consortium, said Tuesday it will no longer buy furniture treated with flame-retardant chemicals.
The decision applies to all Kaiser facilities across eight states, including Washington and Oregon, and the District of Columbia, serving 9.3 million health-plan members. That includes eight medical and dental offices in Clark County.
The announcement means Kaiser is the first health care system to make such a change, said Kathy Gerwig, a vice president and environmental stewardship officer for Kaiser, "but we expect many more announcements to be forthcoming."
That's partly because Kaiser believes that its decision to shift the $30 million it now spends annually on furniture toward chemical-free chairs, benches and sofas will trigger a ripple effect in the larger supply chain, prompting others to follow suit.
"We want manufacturers to shift to new products that don't contain harmful chemicals," Gerwig said. "That won't happen without marketplace pressure." The decision by Kaiser — an Oakland, Calif.-based company that operates more than 38 hospitals and 600 medical offices — also responds to a state law recently passed in California. That law updated flammability standards for upholstered furniture, allowing manufacturers to meet the standards without using flame-retardant chemicals.
Gerwig said such chemicals have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and developmental delays in children. What's more, she said, studies show flame-retardant chemicals "offer no significant benefits in the fire-safety performance of furniture."
In announcing the initiative, Kaiser enjoys the support of two groups: Health Care Without Harm and Healthier Hospitals Initiative. Those groups are advancing national and global efforts to improve environmental health and sustainability in the health care industry.
Since health care is 18 percent of the U.S. economy, the sector, through its purchasing power, can "play a critical role" in moving other industries toward removing toxic flame retardants, said Gary Cohen, president of Health Care Without Harm. "We need to remove these flame retardants from our bodies, from homes, our hospitals, from our schools and from commerce," he said. And in the absence of federal reform, Cohen added, "we'll push the marketplace to get health care to lead by example."
The Kaiser initiative focuses on new furniture purchases, so it's unclear when the company would become 100 percent free of furniture treated with flame retardants. In a news release issued Tuesday, Kaiser said "it expects to see safer furnishings in its hospitals within the next one to three years."
In a phone interview Tuesday, Willy Paul, Kaiser's executive director for national facilities services for the Northwest region, which includes Clark County, said Kaiser will require vendors to supply it with furniture that possesses fire-retardant qualities but that doesn't contain the chemicals.
"What we know is there are natural materials available that manufacturers can use in the production of furniture that perform equally to the fire-retardant chemicals that have been used in the past," Paul said.
Paul said it would be too costly and would not make logistical sense to also immediately replace all of Kaiser's existing furniture. However, he said, Kaiser will phase out older furniture and replace it with the chemical-free kind as it renovates its buildings and conducts maintenance work.
Kaiser has previously sought safer alternatives to products used in health care settings, according to the company's news release. For example, it encouraged manufacturers to produce PVC-free carpets and to develop fabrics that eliminate chemicals such as vinyl, heavy metals and volatile organic compounds.
Representatives of Kaiser, Health Care Without Harm and Healthier Hospitals Initiative made Tuesday's announcement by way of teleconference and in person during CleanMed 2014, a national three-day conference held in Cleveland, Ohio, to promote environmentally friendly products and policies in health care.