Kaiser Permanente to use safer IV equipment

January 19, 2012

Kaiser Permanente, one of the country’s largest health-care providers, plans to announce Thursday that it is converting its intravenous equipment to more eco-friendly alternatives free of two chemicals that have been shown to harm humans and the environment, officials said.

Kaiser will buy IV solution bags that are 100 percent free of PVC and DEHP and intravenous tubing that is free of DEHP. The two chemicals are widely used in medical products. DEHP, or di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate, used to make plastic bags and tubing more pliable, has been linked to reproductive problems and other health effects. When PVC plastic is manufactured or incinerated, it creates dioxin pollution, a known carcinogen.

The announcement reflects a broader movement by hospitals and health systems to organize the industry’s vast purchasing power to push manufacturers of medical products to make them with safer chemicals.

Last fall, five large groups that buy $130 billion worth of medical products every year adopted a standard set of questions they want vendors to answer about a variety of chemicals contained in products. The questions are designed to encourage manufacturers to produce greener and safer products for workers, patients and the environment, industry executives have said.

In 2010, Kaiser was the first in the industry to announce that it would require suppliers to provide environmental data for $1 billion worth of medical equipment and products used in Kaiser’s hospitals, medical offices and other facilities.

“There are lots of major suppliers that heard the message loud and clear that we want to move away from products containing known harmful chemicals,” said Kathy Gerwig, Kaiser Permanente’s vice president for employer safety, health and wellness.

Kaiser’s latest conversion is its highest-volume and most visible change, she said. It affects nearly 100 tons of medical equipment — 4.9 million IV tubing sets and 9.2 million solution bags — each year. It is also expected to save almost $5 million a year.

The process is expected to take about six months. The new equipment is being made with chemicals that are “not targeted as chemicals of concern,” but meet the same quality standards, said spokeswoman Susannah Patton.

In the meantime, Gerwig said consumers should not avoid getting the treatment and medicine they need. The chemicals “are not immediately poisonous,” she said.

“On an individual basis, we can’t say there is a specific exposure that will cause a negative health outcome,” she said. “What we are saying is that for overall community and population health, reducing the potential of exposures to chemicals we know are correlated to disease is a good thing.”

Lena H. Sun is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on health.
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