Kaiser Permanente Commits to Purchasing Furniture Free from Toxic Flame Retardant Chemicals

Organization is the first health system to commit to removing chemicals from hospital furniture; cites concerns over exposure to potential toxicants
Jun 3, 2014 6:10 PM ET
Southern California's updated Fontana Medical Center, opened in 2013, features furniture and fixtures that use fewer toxic chemicals.

OAKLAND, Calif., June 3, 2014 /3BL Media/ — Concerned about increasing levels of potentially harmful chemicals in the environment, Kaiser Permanente announced Tuesday that it will stop purchasing furniture treated with flame retardants. Kaiser Permanente is the first health system in the country to do this. The decision could impact more than 38 hospitals and 600 medical offices in eight states and the District of Columbia.

Kaiser Permanente’s new furniture standard specifies that upholstered furniture in new or remodeled buildings should not contain added fire retardant chemicals. Kaiser Permanente spends roughly $30 million a year to furnish its hospitals, medical offices and other buildings with chairs, benches, sofas and other furniture.

The decision follows a recent move by the State of California, which updated its flammability standard for upholstered furniture. The new rules state that furniture manufacturers can meet standards without the use of fire retardant chemicals, which studies show offer no significant benefit in the fire safety performance of furniture.

Chemicals used as flame retardants have been linked to reproductive problems, developmental delays and cancer, among other health problems. Concern over the health impacts to children, pregnant women and the general public has been growing in recent years, as scientific studies have documented the dangers of exposure.

“Where there is credible evidence that a material might result in harm to the environment or public health, we work to replace it with safer alternatives,” said Kathy Gerwig, vice president of employee safety, health and wellness, and Kaiser Permanente’s environmental stewardship officer.

The organization is working with its furniture manufacturers to meet this revised standard, and it expects to see safer furnishings in its hospitals within the next one to three years.

“Kaiser Permanente is creating national momentum in the health care sector for abandoning flame retardant chemicals in exchange for safer alternatives,” said Gary Cohen, president and founder of Health Care Without Harm and the Healthier Hospitals Initiative. “The Healthier Hospitals Initiative is working with 1,000 hospitals across the country to protect public health and prevent disease through implementing sustainability strategies. We will utilize this broad hospital network to drive toxic flame retardants out of health care and create the demand for their phase-out from our schools and homes as well.”

Kaiser Permanente has led the industry in sourcing safer alternatives to products used in health care settings. It encouraged manufacturers to produce PVC-free carpets and to develop fabrics that eliminate chemicals of concern, including vinyl, heavy metals and volatile organic compounds. More than 50 percent of its overall spending on cleaning products is spent on Green Seal-certified products. And, in 2010, it launched its Sustainability Scorecard to provide preference to eco-friendly suppliers and products. The organization has made the Sustainability Scorecard available to the health care industry’s largest group-purchasing organizations to advance an estimated $135 billion in annual purchasing of care-delivery products that do not use chemicals known to be harmful to human health or the environment.

“Kaiser Permanente is a leader in pushing the market toward safer alternatives,” said Michael Green, executive director of the Center for Environmental Health, which advocated in support of the updated flammability standard in California. “We anticipate other health care organizations and businesses outside of the sector will follow this great example.”

Gerwig said: “At Kaiser Permanente, we believe through our practices we can help promote the creation and adoption of safer chemicals and sustainable materials in a way that supports a healthy economy, healthy environment and healthy people.”

About Health Care Without Harm
Heath Care Without Harm (HCWH) is an international coalition of more than 500 organizations in 53 countries, working to transform the health sector worldwide, without compromising patient safety or care, so that it becomes ecologically sustainable and a leading advocate for environmental health and justice. For more information, go to: www.noharm.org.

About the Healthier Hospitals Initiative
The Healthier Hospitals Initiative (HHI) is a national campaign to implement a new approach to improving environmental health and sustainability in the healthcare sector. Led by 12 sponsoring health systems and three nonprofits, HHI challenges hospitals to reduce waste in six Challenge areas: Engaged Leadership, Healthier Food, Leaner Energy, Less Waste, Safer Chemicals and Smarter Purchasing. HHI represents nearly 1,000 hospitals across the country, working to protect public health and the environment. For more information, go to: www.healthierhospitals.org.

About the Center for Environmental Health
The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) is a non-profit organization that protects the public from exposure to toxic chemicals. CEH works with leading businesses on key sustainability issues and developed the “Purchaser Pledge to Prefer Flame Retardant-Free Products” to which Kaiser Permanente and now other companies have committed. For more information, go to: http://www.ceh.org/

About Kaiser Permanente
Kaiser Permanente is committed to helping shape the future of health care. We are recognized as one of America’s leading health care providers and not-for-profit health plans. Founded in 1945, our mission is to provide high-quality, affordable health care services and to improve the health of our members and the communities we serve. We currently serve approximately 9.3 million members in eight states and the District of Columbia. Care for members and patients is focused on their total health and guided by their personal physicians, specialists and team of caregivers. Our expert and caring medical teams are empowered and supported by industry-leading technology advances and tools for health promotion, disease prevention, state-of-the-art care delivery and world-class chronic disease management. Kaiser Permanente is dedicated to care innovations, clinical research, health education and the support of community health. For more information, go to: kp.org/share.