Making the Health Care Sector healthier

28th June 2009- People attaining treatment in health care institutions are at times exposed to practices that can further harm their health, such as being exposed to harmful chemicals such as mercury (commonly used in health care equipment and settings) which can have an adverse impact on a patient’s health. Even during performing simple procedures like taking the temperature with a glass mercury thermometer, all the people in the health care setting could be at risk. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin, which means it attacks the body’s central nervous system. It can also harm the brain, kidneys and lungs.

groundWork (Friends of the Earth, South Africa) [1] in partnership with Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) [2] and the Democratic Nursing Organisation in South Africa (DENOSA) will be hosting a workshop titled: ‘Nurses Building Healthier Environments’ to highlight and address these challenges common to health care institutions globally, as a pre-event to the International Council of Nurses 24th Congress [3] to be held in Durban, South Africa this week.

The environment we live in is not the same as it was 15 years ago. We are now exposed to far more pollutants, chemicals and radiations that are impacting on our everyday health and the ecological systems. Alarmingly, health care institutions are also currently the source of some of these pollutants as well.

Health care professionals and the institutions in which they work are meant to be the ultimate defence against the illnesses that affect society. Nurses, physicians and other health care practitioners strive to provide this protection for our families and our communities. Yet, unknown to many of us, the purchasing and waste disposal practices of health care institutions often undermine their own purpose, and our expectations of them, by contributing to public health sicknesses.

When a patient is treated they are exposed to procedures that commonly rely on medical products made with harmful chemicals such as poly vinyl chloride (PVC) which has been found to be leaching from these products and exposing patients. The health care waste from our institutions is also potentially dangerous and is growing at alarming volumes rather than decreasing. Changes in technology and the increased use of plastics such as PVC and disposable products have substantially modified the potential harm and increased the amount of disposable waste.

Dioxin (the most harmful and potent human carcinogen) is formed and released when PVC is manufactured and incinerated. Dioxin is the common name for a class of 75 chemicals. It is a known human carcinogen and in animals, dioxin causes decreased sperm count, congenital malformations, premature onset of puberty and endometriosis.

Time: 11:30 hrs
Date: Monday, 29th of June 2009
Venue: The Playhouse Company, 29 Acutt Street, Durban.

Nomcebo Mvelase, Environmental Health Campaign Manager, groundWork:
‘In a democratic South Africa we have a right to an environmental that is not harmful to ones health and well-being. As people within the health care and NGO sector it is our obligation to call for alternatives to the present medical practices if these expose our vulnerable population to further health risk. In KwaZulu Natal, the Department of Health has moved away from incinerating health care waste.’

Anna Gilmore Hall, Executive Director, Health Care Without Harm:
‘We are working to replace mercury-based medical devices with affordable, accurate and safer alternatives and continue to provide cost effective and safer care for our patients and communities. Nurses in Latin American, Southeast Asia, North America have been leaders in moving their facilities toward mercury free health care. The European Union has banned mercury thermometers as has Taiwan. The Philippines has mandated a phase-out of all mercury medical devices over the next two years, while hundreds of hospitals in Latin America-from Mexico to Brazil to Argentina are moving toward alternatives to raise awareness of the environmental hazards of mercury that are leading to bans of the use of mercury.

For more information please contact:

Nomcebo Mvelase, groundWork:
073 238 5163

Rico Euripidou, Research Manager, groundWork
083 519 3008


[1] groundWork is an environmental justice organisation working with community people from around South Africa and increasingly in Southern Africa on environmental justice and human rights issues focusing on Air Pollution, Waste including Health Care Waste and Environmental Health. groundWork is a member of Health Without Harm.

[2] Health Care Without Harm is a global campaign with more than 440 members in 52 countries dedicated to environmentally responsible health care (

[3] For more information see