Published on May 1st, 2013 | by Martin Miron


Greening Our Temples of Healing

The 775-bed nonprofit teaching and research hospital HackensackUMC has made tremendous strides by creating an entire campus of care, including the Heart & Vascular Hospital, the John Theurer Cancer Center, the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital and the Donna A. Sanzari Women’s Hospital.

Within this campus, The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center is a marvel of sustainable design and a model for healthcare facilities everywhere. Created on the second floor of a research building of the nation’s fourth-largest hospital, the space was gutted and rebuilt using as many eco-friendly building materials as possible.

Imus, the center’s founder, has operated a working ranch in New Mexico with her husband Don, a renowned broadcaster, as a summer retreat for kids with cancer since 1998. She states, “I thought about the fact that all these children are treated in hospitals, and the question I asked myself was, ‘Are hospitals places of healing in a physical sense? Do they build green? Do they use nontoxic cleaning products?’”

Imus elaborates on the center’s construction, “We used cork flooring and low-VOC paint, and for all the cabinetry we used a nontoxic wheat board instead of particle board, which is highly toxic, with formaldehyde and all the toxic glues. We left it without a decorative laminate over it so that everyone could see the wheat board in the kitchen area and all the cabinets.” They even used insulation material made from recycled cotton denim jeans and scraps.

As part of the process that led to the creation of a totally new line of institutional and residential cleaning products, Greening The Cleaning (GTC), she explains, “I got stuck on the cleaning products because when I started doing the research, I saw carcinogen, carcinogen—all the cancer-causing chemicals that are used in cleaning products. I took that idea to HackensackUMC with the vision of totally revamping the campus. There was no ‘green’ then. People used the words environmental or saving the planet or good for the environment, but no one really was using the word green. The GTC program was developed at the hospital and implemented successfully in 2001 and the center came afterward to continue those initiatives.”

The whole green initiative of health care—that the physical space should be conducive to healing— seemed like common sense to Imus. As she began to investigate the conditions in hospitals across the country, it seemed ironic that for so many years, no one had tried to change the status quo of poor diets, toxic conditions and wasteful practices. She explains, “That is the founding principle of our mission. It’s about identifying, controlling and eventually preventing all these toxic exposures in our environment that threaten our children’s health and make all of us sick.”

Imus insists that everyone benefits from green, sustainable practices. “Anytime you use a traditional chemical cleaning product, it may contribute to poor indoor air quality, which can create what the EPA calls Sick Building Syndrome,” she states. “You’re breathing in these chemicals and also polluting the water—and then that water goes into lakes and rivers. A community that isn’t using green cleaning products is polluting on a daily basis, 24/7. I felt, what better place to introduce all of these ideas and vision than a hospital—if we could do it in a hospital, it would be easy to do it in office buildings, homes and any public place.”

Hospitals are much harder models to penetrate, with codes dealing with infectious disease and myriad other health regulations. Imus points out, “We had to go through all those tests with GTC products pertaining to infectious disease and also the asthma and immunology department, and we passed with flying colors.” The doctors at HackensackUMC said that they were surprised the green products worked as well or even better than the traditional products. Better yet, the GTC program yielded an 18 percent cost savings the first year and continues to average about a 10 percent savings.

But Imus didn’t stop there. “The first thing you have to do is prove that it works, because if you don’t, then it’s of no value,” she says. “We helped pass green cleaning executive orders in the state of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut and other related legislation in 10 other states. We really created the model for green healthcare by establishing our sustainable hospitals committee at HackensackUMC.”

Systems were instituted for using mercury-free vaccines, serving healthier meals and providing vending machine options with choices like organic foods—no junk food. “We signed a memorandum of understanding in 2012 with the Environmental Protection Agency focusing on waste reduction, built a state-of-the-art recycling station and we’re implementing three more on campus. We’re getting a lot accomplished and then studying that example to show others this is how you do it.”

Managing Director Bonnie Eskenazi is a significant part of the Environmental Health Center, and according to Imus, one of the main reasons why it is so successful, who notes, “She’s the glue. She’s extraordinary.” For Imus, it’s a total commitment. “I’m not there physically every day, but I also work out of an office in New York City,” she says. “My job is full-time because of the center and ranch and the GTC brand institutional and retail product lines. This is what I do.”

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Martin Miron is the editor of Natural Awakenings magazine.

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