Hospitals are pledging to purchase interior furnishings free of halogenated flame retardants (HFRs) where there are safer alternatives, following the Chicago Tribune investigative series exposing the chemical industry’s deceptive tactics about the safety and efficacy of HFRs. Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) is leading the effort to urge hospital furnishing manufacturers to reformulate their products and adopt safer chemical policies.

In a letter sent earlier this month, HCWH urged product manufacturers to endorse the Guiding Principles for Safer Chemicals developed by the Business-NGO Working Group (BizNGO). BizNGO is a unique collaboration of leaders in business and non-governmental organizations who are creating a roadmap for businesses interested in moving to safer chemicals and sustainable materials. In the letter, HCWH indicated its intent to make a future public announcement to reveal which manufactures commit to the Principles.

“Hospitals take very seriously the links between chemicals in the environment and rising rates of disease among Americans,” stated Gary Cohen, president of Health Care Without Harm. “They are committed to use their purchasing power to move toward safer alternatives, and to help drive our economy toward safer products. With billions of dollars in purchasing annually, health care can help shift the entire marketplace toward products that are safer for people and the environment.”

Concerns about some flame retardants and other hazardous chemicals are not new. Weaknesses in our current federal regulatory system have meant that inadequately-tested chemicals can enter the marketplace. Moreover, it can be difficult to get information on chemical ingredients in products and any safety testing that has been conducted. Efforts to update federal laws that call for disclosure and testing of chemicals used in products are ongoing. In the meantime, leading companies are increasingly adopting forward-looking policies to address these gaps. The Guiding Principles for Safer Chemicals is a prominent example.

“Current government regulation is inadequate to safeguard the public from toxic chemicals. We have long pressed for reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act. However, when government does not or cannot take action to remove unsafe chemicals from the market, hospitals have been proactive in seeking safer alternatives,” said Tracey Easthope of Health Care Without Harm. “Companies wanting to sell to the health care sector need to take proactive steps to monitor evidence on chemicals of concern, and to reformulate when safer alternatives are available.”

Halogenated flame retardants can be found in a variety of furniture and furnishings such as mattresses, drapery, carpets, curtains, clothing, and other items commonly used in hospitals and homes. The effort around HFRs is just the latest move made by the health care sector to help encourage safer product development in the marketplace. In November of last year, the health care sector’s group purchasing organizations (GPOs) asked their vendors to provide information on chemicals of concern in their medical products in an effort to understand their relative environmental attributes.

“The Chicago Tribune investigation has opened our eyes to the extent to which the chemical industry will go to protect its profits,” said Cohen. “In a country with epidemic chronic illnesses, many of which are linked to chemicals and other environmental pollutants, we need to help create the demand for the manufacture of safer alternatives.”