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    Decreasing the Environmental Footprint of Sickness

    By Heather Millar


    The other day, I was walking the dogs and ran into an acquaintance. Our German Shepherds like each other; we both have dealt with having bedridden mothers in our households. Her mother founded a famous non-profit, so I’d heard on the radio that her mother had just died at the age of 92. I told her I was sorry for her loss. As we watched our dogs frolic, we talked about illness and grief and the brevity of life.

    As the sun set, and we walked toward the parking lot, she turned to me and said, “We’ve got so much stuff left over. I tried to call the city home for the aged to donate the supplies, but they wouldn’t take them. Do you think you could use it for your mother?”

    As soon as we got to her house, I realized that the diapers and bed covers were way too small for my Mom, but I took them anyway. I remember when my Dad died of lung cancer, our family immediately wanted to get rid of all the trappings of illness: the walkers, the bathroom accessories, the hospital table and on and on. I think they may still be in our neighbor’s garage.

    In this case, I figured that I had more time and emotional bandwidth to figure out what to do with the diapers than my friend did. When I got home and started unloading the bags and bags of diapers, one of my Mom’s caregivers confirmed that they were all too small, but she said, “My sister works part time in a nursing home for disadvantaged people. The packages are still sealed, so they’ll be happy to take them.”

    Problem solved. If only it were always this easy. It should come as no surprise that hospitals and patients are major producers of waste. In the average hospital, a staggering array of things get thrown out: surgical packs, towels, those horrible treaded socks they give you when you’re having surgery, food, sheets, used sharps, ports, needles. The list is seemingly endless.

    Of course, issues of sanitation and liability make some of this waste unavoidable. Who’s going to re-use needles or blood-soaked bandages? But the most diligent search for evidence that reusing supplies somehow results in more deaths or illness has turned up little. A 2008 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded reprocessed devices do not present an increased health risk over new devices. There’s a story about that here.

    So, in the last decade or so, hospitals have begun to recycle what they can: surgical tools opened and not used, or only used once, laparascopic ports, bandages, compression sleeves, pulse oximeters and more. The American Medical Association website features a list of large recycling programs for health care providers. The American College of Surgeons “Operation Giving Back” provides a state-by-state listing that seeks to bring together those who want to donate equipment, and those who need it. Much of the donated equipment goes to underserved communities in this country, or to developing countries.

    For us patients, it’s more complicated. Look around your house, and I bet it won’t be difficult to find quite a bit of medicine or medical equipment you no longer need. In my own home, I still have vials of fantastically expensive medicines left over from chemo. We have a ,000 motorized wheelchair in the garage. I think my Mom used it once. We’ve got a Hoyer lift, and walkers, and bathroom safety devices and more. What will we do with it all?

    Members of my breast cancer support group often give away unused medication to newly diagnosed members, but that’s hardly a national initiative. With drugs, I’m guessing it will have to remain informal like this, because of all the legal and liability issues. If you just want to safely dispose of medicines, the U.S. Department of Justice runs a “National Take Back Initiative” to collect unused medicines. The next take-back day is April 27.

    For other kinds of supplies, Recycled Medical offers a kind of Craigslist for people who want to sell pre-owned medical equipment and those who want to buy them.

    If you want to donate or borrow equipment, Goodwill and Easter Seals have teamed up in some states. (Minnesota, Alabama, Florida, North Dakota, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Ohio, and New Jersey are the ones I could confirm.) They accept and loan out walkers, commodes, bathtub rails and tub seats, un-powered wheelchairs, children’s wheelchairs and other assisted living equipment. HealthBase, a medical tourism company (as in, having knee surgery in India where it’s cheaper) offers a Free Recycling program for patients.

    I have yet to find an easily-found, easily-accessible, national, or even state-wide initiative that accepts unused or lightly used medical supplies, but it’s not impossible to keep your extras out of the landfill. If none of the above resources work for your area or your situation, try Googling, “patient medical supplies recycling” and add your location. Let me what you find, and if there are any resources I’ve left out of this post.

    Photo: Pixland

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