President decides fate of mercury

Health sector’s prescription: Choose your president wisely

Manila — Environmental-health group, Health Care Without Harm-Southeast Asia (HCWH-SEA) today released the names of the presidential bets that the health sector concerned with environment would “most likely support.” The health sector, for their part, sent out their prescription: Choose your next president wisely.

“It is good to see who will take on the challenge of greening the health care system once elected. While we already have an Administrative Order mandating the phase-out of mercury in all Philippine health care facilities and institutions, the next President’s readiness to address the issue is crucial in attaining our goal of a mercury-free Philippines and a greener health care.

Among the presidential aspirants who signed the Green Health Covenant are Olongapo City Councilor JC delos Reyes of Ang Kapatiran, environmentalist Nicanor Perlas, independent candidate Sen. Jamby Madrigal and spiritual leader Bro. Eddie Villanueva of Bangon Pilipinas.

“The health sector is more than glad that these presidential aspirants have taken a keen interest in greening our health care,” said Faye Ferrer, HCWH-SEA Program Officer for Mercury in Health Care.

Former President Joseph Estrada of the Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino did not respond while Sen. Manuel Villar, Jr. of the Nacionalista Party, Sen. Richard Gordon of Bagumbayan and Former Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro of Lakas-Kampi-CMD did not sign. Sen. Benigno Aquino III of the Liberal Party, on the other hand, did not sign the Covenant and instead sent a letter thru his campaign manager Florencio Abad expressing support to achieve a healthy environment for all Filipinos. The letter says, the dangers of mercury and other substances harmful to the health and the environment and how to address them will definitely be a priority under the health and environment agenda of the Aquino-Roxas administration.

“We would have wanted Sen. Aquino to sign the Covenant for we know that a Covenant, just like a contract, is far more binding than a letter of promise. But we will definitely follow-up on his letter,” said Ferrer.

The Green Health Covenant signed by more than 1,500 health care facilities and institutions, individuals and Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral is a pledge from the health sector to enjoin their candidates to support green health care. A green health care, according to the Covenant, is mercury-free, observes proper health care waste management, regulates chemical use and disposal in the health care setting and is responsive to climate change.

“It is good to see who will take on the challenge of greening the health care system once elected,” said Ferrer. “While we already have an Administrative Order mandating the phase-out of mercury in all Philippine health care facilities and institutions, the next President’s readiness to address the issue is crucial in attaining our goal of a mercury-free Philippines and a greener health care.”

The many shades of green health

Greening the health care is no easy task. In the regional conferences organized by HCWH-SEA and DoH-Center for Health Development, among the issues raised on mercury phase-out are lack of funding, information dissemination and disposal.

Few months before the September 2010 deadline for mercury phase-out, majority of health facilities controlled by the local government units (LGU) are unaware of the existence of the AO.

While the DoH is keen on phasing-out mercury in the health sector, most particularly from the DoH-controlled hospitals, the absence of suitable disposal area remains an issue. AO 21 mandates that phased-out mercury devices must be stored in a safe place within the hospital facility.

“However, there is a need to find a more centralized intermediate storage where all the devices phased-out from hospitals and even households may be sent. This storage may also be used to store other mercury-containing devices beyond those used in the health care,” Ferrer pointed out.

While waiting on the intermediate storage area, the group advises households to stop using existing mercurial devices at home and to store it in a safe place at home.

In terms of chemical safety, chemicals that are harmful to health are still prevalently used in health care. Some of these toxic chemicals are methylacrylate, xylene, organic solvents, formaldehyde and cleaning and sterilizing compounds such as ethylene oxide, sodium hypochlorite, glutaraldehyde, and phenols.

“Sterilizing agents like Cidex contain glutaraldehyde and fixatives for tissues have formaldehyde while benzene- and phenol-containing cleaners are all carcinogenic,” Ferrer explained.

Talking of climate change, “I am sure that after months of campaigning and sorties under the intense heat of the sun, our presidential bets are more than aware of climate change and its impact,” Ferrer said. “The health sector, being an energy intensive industry may contribute to lessening the impacts of climate change thru simple modifications within their facility. We need a President who will support these endeavors,” she added.

“Waste disposal is another issue. Although wastes generated from hospitals are but a small portion of general wastes, we have to remember that in aiming for a zero waste country, we need to address the small but just as important issue of medical waste.”

“We need a President who will address these issues head on. He/she must be willing and able to look at the issues and act. The new President should be able to provide a situation where the attainment of these goals is within reach,” Ferrer pointed out.

“We know that there are myriads of other issues out there but if the new President will take the time to look into environmental health issues on his first 100 days in office, he is not just addressing environmental health concerns but public health as well. He may even be contributing to the limited national budget by preventing occurrence of envi-related diseases and thus extending the budget to other immediate health concerns.”

Although not as obvious as hunger or nutrition problems, environmental health issue greatly impacts the public health. According to the 2006 World Bank (WB) Philippines Environment Monitor, globally it is estimated that 24% of the disease burden and 23% of premature deaths could be avoided through a better environment. In the Philippines, environment-related health risks (air pollution, water pollution, sanitation and hygiene practices) account for an estimated 22% of the reported disease cases and nearly six percent of reported deaths and costing Php14.3 billion (US$287 million) per year in lost income and medical expenses.

Voting wisely

Now that the signatories know who among the Presidential bets will take on environmental health issue, will this change their mind when they cast their votes on May 10?

“This will definitely influence the people’s choice. Even though you have previously selected your candidate, you will think twice when you know that your choice is not supportive of environmental health concerns,” said Edgardo F. Faustino, MD, FPCP, President of Philippine College of Physician-Southern Luzon Chapter. “The key is to choose and vote wisely. And whoever wins in May, we need to continue to push forward our call to a greener health care.”

Signatories of the Covenant include health care practitioners from the Philippine Army, members of the Philippine Society of Pathologists, Philippine College of Physicians and health workers from different parts of the country.