Kaiser Permanente, which spends $1 billion annually on medical supplies, announced this morning that it will no longer buy intravenous (IV) medical equipment made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and DEHP (di-2-ethyl hexyl phthalate) -type plasticizers.
The huge health West Coast health provider announced two years ago a plan to become more green and move away from PVC and today's announcement marks a challenge to PVC's dominant role in flexible tubing, bags and other supplies used in health care. Kaiser Permanente purchases 4.9 million IV tubing sets and 9.2 million solution bags each year.
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"We at Kaiser Permanente recognize that the products we buy can have a direct effect on human health and the health of our environment," said Raymond J. Baxter, senior vice president for Community Benefit, Research and Health Policy. "Our efforts to remove harmful chemicals from hospitals and clinics reflect our commitment to the total health of our members and our communities."
One of the most surprising aspects of the announcement is that Kaiser Permanente said it will save close to $5 million annually as a result of the conversion. Details were not immediately available. Conversion of PVC to alternatives, such as elastomers, is generally significantly more expensive. It wasn't clear if the savings reported by KP are due to an aggressive supplier anxious to get a big piece of business or a migration to materials that truly are less costly.
Kaiser Permanente launched a Sustainability Scorecard, described as the first of its kind in health care, in 2010 in an effort to evaluate the environmental and health impacts of each medical item it purchases and to encourage suppliers across the industry to provide greener products for the health care sector. The scorecard requires suppliers to provide information on their company's environmental commitment, use of potentially harmful chemicals in their products and information about product and packaging recycling.
"Kaiser Permanente recognizes we can improve health today and for the future by taking a close look at the products we purchase," said Barry Brenner, vice president for medical sourcing at Kaiser Permanente. "With Kaiser Permanente's size and influence, we are able to move the industry to create greener products."
Health effects challenged
It has been widely reported that long-term exposure to DEHP, used as a plasticizer in medical devices such as IV bags and tubing, can affect the body's endocrine system, resulting in hormonal abnormalities, particularly in infants. When PVC plastic is manufactured or incinerated, dioxin pollution may be created. Dioxin is a known carcinogen.
Those issues are hotly contested by the Vinyl Institute, a trade group representing PVC producers and other companies in the vinyl supply chain.
The group states on its Web site: "The most complete, comprehensive studies of the life-cycle health and environmental impacts of PVC/vinyl versus competing materials have shown consistently that vinyl's impacts are in line with those of other materials - and can be lower."
Prior to yesterday's announcement, the Vinyl Institute commented: "Kaiser Permanente