Hopkins trails in managing toxic waste, survey finds

June 10, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Johns Hopkins Hospital's medical practices may be cutting edge, but its methods of handling garbage and toxic wastes put it near the back of the pack in efforts to prevent pollution, according to a Washington environmental research group.

In a survey of 50 of the nation's top hospitals, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group found that some are trying to cut their share of air pollutants by burning less waste, while reducing the amount of harmful chemicals, like mercury, that they use.

Medical waste incinerators are ranked by the Environmental Protection Agency as one of the nation's top sources of toxic air pollution. Hospitals are major users of plastics, which can give off the cancer-causing compound dioxin when burned. Hospital equipment containing mercury is the third-biggest source of the toxic metal in the environment, according to a study by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

"Dioxin and mercury are truly toxic materials that should be eliminated from common use," said Michael McCally, a professor at New York City's Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Some hospitals find it "ironic that the health care industry is contributing to ill health," McCally said, so they're reducing what they burn and buying mercury-free thermometers.

But Hopkins is not part of the "greening" trend, said Charlotte Brody of the Virginia-based Center for Health, Environment and Justice, the nonprofit environmental group that commissioned the survey. It was based on replies to a questionnaire sent to the chief executives and waste managers at 100 of the 135 hospitals named tops in America by U.S. News and World Report.

Three out of five hospitals surveyed said they burned only the small percentage of their waste that they're required by law to burn, such as body parts and chemotherapy wastes. But Brody said Hopkins' hospital also burns garbage that could easily be recycled, like cardboard and paper.

Brody said Baltimore-area hospitals have no incentive to reduce the wastes they burn because they have long-term contracts with a privately run incinerator at Hawkins Point, requiring them to pay the same amount no matter how much trash they produce. Greater Baltimore Medical Center, which also participated in the survey, burns most of its garbage; GBMC officials cited the contract and worries that some infectious wastes might end up in landfills as the reasons.

Four out of five hospitals said they are taking steps to reduce the amount of mercury they use, and one out of five is cutting back on plastics. Hopkins does neither, according to the survey.

Hopkins spokesman Joann Rodgers declined to comment yesterday, saying it would take about two weeks to compile information on the hospital's waste practices. She disputed the validity of the survey, saying no one in authority at the hospital had filled out the group's questionnaire.

True enough, said Brody. A Hopkins medical student filled it out during an interview with a Hopkins waste manager.

"I'm so sorry that instead of seeing this as an opportunity to begin a process of change, Hopkins is denying" the report, Brody said. "We never meant to attack Hopkins or any other hospital. The enemies here are dioxin and mercury, not hospitals."

Pub Date: 6/10/98

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