When you are among the first voices to speak out on an issue, it’s difficult to know if anyone is listening. When I founded The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center® at Hackensack University Medical Center fifteen years ago, concern about our children's health being impacted by toxic exposures in the environment was not the hot button, trendy issue it is today. The immediacy I felt to help identify the substances that may be harming our kids and their world was inspired by my work at The Imus Ranch, where we lived, worked, and changed the lives of thousands of children with cancer. We built the first working vegetarian green cattle ranch to help children who were sick, or suffering the loss of a sibling. I wondered if the hospitals where they were being treated were similarly healthy environments.
This is where our work started. We discovered that hospitals commonly used toxic products, so we began our mission to overhaul the kind of cleaning products used in hospitals. In the spring of 2001 we successfully implemented our award winning Greening The Cleaning® program. Who else was using the word "greening" or "green" to describe the efficacy and healthfulness of their products? We were among the first. I don't recall anyone else.
Over the last fifteen years, terms like “green,” “all natural” and “eco-friendly” have, for better or for worse, become a part of the cultural lexicon. Alarm and debate over climate change, its causes, and its effects have never been more prominent and, for some reason, more controversial. Our presence on this Earth has undoubtedly impacted its health. We see it in record-setting heat waves, smog-filled skies, droughts, floods, intense storms, bee colony collapse, and much more.
Similarly, environmental factors both natural and manmade have affected the health of every single person on this planet, in ways both obvious and obscure. Part of our mission over the last decade and a half has been to explain the obvious, and expose the obscure. Particularly, we have explored the ramifications of these toxic exposures on children, which manifest in illnesses like asthma, cancer, developmental disabilities, and allergies, to name just a few.
To start, we have made a number of critical changes at our own home, Hackensack University Medical Center, in New Jersey. I always believed that the physical environment of a hospital should be healing, and we have taken several key steps to ensure patients, staff, and visitors have the healthiest possible experience at our hospital. In 2005, we helped create the first green hospital building of its size and scale in the country, which was included on the Green Guide’s list of Top 10 Green Hospitals in the U.S. Recently, we helped develop a new healing garden at the Audrey Hepburn Children’s House, a center at the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital that provides social services and counseling to children with psychological or trauma-based needs. It offers a calm, welcoming environment consisting of a sitting area, spaces for confidential therapy sessions, and a garden work area.
In 2010 we launched our website, now named ImusEnvironmentalHealth.org, where we offer loads of information on children's health, the toxins to which they are routinely exposed, healthy recipes, books about toxic exposures and how to avoid them, and weekly blogs to keep you informed on the latest health information – especially for your children.
In 2012, HackensackUMC signed an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to further reduce our carbon footprint and enhance green practices at the hospital by reducing its use of plastic and solid waste, and increasing the overall recycling rate from 14 to 35 percent. To that end, we opened a recycling station and helped HackensackUMC’s dining services eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages, implement “Meatless Mondays,” and serve antibiotic-free chicken and antibiotic-free beef.
In 2014 the hospital announced it would stop purchasing furniture treated with toxic flame retardant chemicals, which can affect the reproductive, neurocognitive, and immune systems. We’ve also focused on reducing products containing DEHP, a chemical commonly used to make medical devices like IV bags and tubing. Very young male infants exposed to DEHP may be at increased risk for reproductive problems, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Under our guidance in sustainability, HackensackUMC earned Practice Greenhealth’s highest honor as a 2015 Environmental Excellence Award Winner, and was recognized as one of the top 25 green hospitals in the country in 2014 and 2015. We were one of just 11 hospitals nationwide invited to the White House to discuss climate change with the Surgeon General, and we continue to publish groundbreaking research: in 2015 alone we discovered the prevalence of endocrine disrupting environmental chemicals in prepubescent children; proved the efficacy of a nontoxic alternative to chemical-laden lice treatments; and mapped eight of the most prevalent toxins potentially linked to autism spectrum disorders in the state of New Jersey, which has the highest autism rates in the country.
Of course, we continue to improve the environment of schools, business and other hospitals through our Greening The Cleaning® program. As a result, we’ve enhanced the health of innumerable students, children, teachers, employees, doctors, nurses, patients, and others, and hope you’ll join us on this continuing journey of protecting children’s health and the environment.