March 9, 2010

In Senate testimony, Gerwig highlights safer chemicals

Kathy Gerwig, Kaiser Permanente’s vice president for Workplace Safety and environmental stewardship officer, testified Tuesday, March 9 before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics and Environment, about Kaiser Permanente’s efforts to curb the use of potentially toxic chemicals.

The Committee is reviewing the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, and is looking to organizations such as Kaiser Permanente for lessons learned regarding the environment, health and the impact of potentially toxic substances. The law has not been amended since it was created in 1976.

The testimony is timely because subcommittee Chairman Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is expected to introduce a reform bill soon.

Kaiser Permanente has been working for years to curb its environmental impact and improve the health of the communities it serves by using safer chemicals, building greener hospitals, reducing waste, purchasing locally grown food and using less energy. The organization is also taking the initiative to “green” the health care industry by leveraging its purchasing power. For example, the organization was the first health system in the United States to contract for patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) sets that are totally free of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and DEHP. PVC is a major source of dioxin, a known human carcinogen. Numerous animal studies indicate that DEHP, a plasticizer often used in medical products, may cause reproductive harm and cancer.

Kaiser Permanente also supports safer chemicals through research. The organization’s Division of Research conducted the first study to look at the effect of high levels of workplace exposure to Bisphenol-A, or BPA, on the male reproductive system in humans. A recent study, which appeared in the journal Human Reproduction, adds to the body of evidence questioning the safety of BPA, a chemical used in the production of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins found in baby bottles, plastic containers, the lining of cans used for food and beverages, and in dental sealants. Kaiser Permanente purchases baby bottles that are free of BPA, and continues to push for safer alternatives to other products that contain BPA.

“As we strive to advance an economy where the production and use of chemicals are not harmful for humans or the environment, Kaiser Permanente invests significant time and resources,” Gerwig said in her testimony. “That degree of investment is simply not feasible for most products and materials we buy, nor is it possible for most organizations that do not have the resources and skills that we have developed over decades. Mechanisms are needed to support downstream users in procuring the safest products and materials for our needs.”

Read Gerwig’s full testimony (pdf), hosted at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s Web site.