OAKLAND, CA  - Concerned about increasing levels of potentially harmful chemicals in the environment, Kaiser Permanente announced that it will stop purchasing furniture treated with flame retardants. Kaiser Permanente is the first health system in the country to do this. The decision could impact more than 38 hospitals and 600 medical offices in eight states and the District of Columbia.

Kaiser Permanente's new furniture standard specifies that upholstered furniture in new or remodeled buildings should not contain added fire retardant chemicals. Kaiser Permanente spends roughly $30 million a year to furnish its hospitals, medical offices and other buildings with chairs, benches, sofas and other furniture.

The decision follows a recent move by the State of California, which updated its flammability standard for upholstered furniture. The new rules state that furniture manufacturers can meet standards without the use of fire retardant chemicals, which studies show offer no significant benefit in the fire safety performance of furniture.  

Chemicals used as flame retardants have been linked to reproductive problems, developmental delays and cancer, among other health problems. Concern over the health impacts to children, pregnant women and the general public has been growing in recent years, as scientific studies have documented the dangers of exposure.

"Where there is credible evidence that a material might result in harm to the environment or public health, we work to replace it with safer alternatives," said Kathy Gerwig, vice president of employee safety, health and wellness, and Kaiser Permanente's environmental stewardship officer.

The organization is working with its furniture manufacturers to meet this revised standard, and it expects to see safer furnishings in its hospitals within the next one to three years.

"Kaiser Permanente is creating national momentum in the health care sector for abandoning flame retardant chemicals in exchange for safer alternatives," said Gary Cohen, president and founder of Health Care Without Harm and the Healthier Hospitals Initiative. "The Healthier Hospitals Initiative is working with 1,000 hospitals across the country to protect public health and prevent disease through implementing sustainability strategies. We will utilize this broad hospital network to drive toxic flame retardants out of health care and create the demand for their phase-out from our schools and homes as well."  

Kaiser Permanente has led the industry in sourcing safer alternatives to products used in health care settings. It encouraged manufacturers to produce PVC-free carpets and to develop fabrics that eliminate chemicals of concern, including vinyl, heavy metals and volatile organic compounds. More than 50 percent of its overall spending on cleaning products is spent on Green Seal-certified products. And, in 2010, it launched its Sustainability Scorecard to provide preference to eco-friendly suppliers and products. The organization has made the Sustainability Scorecard available to the health care industry's largest group-purchasing organizations to advance an estimated $135 billion in annual purchasing of care-delivery products that do not use chemicals known to be harmful to human health or the environment.

"Kaiser Permanente is a leader in pushing the market toward safer alternatives," said Michael Green, executive director of the Center for Environmental Health, which advocated in support of the updated flammability standard in California. "We anticipate other health care organizations and businesses outside of the sector will follow this great example."

Gerwig said: "At Kaiser Permanente, we believe through our practices we can help promote the creation and adoption of safer chemicals and sustainable materials in a way that supports a healthy economy, healthy environment and healthy people."   

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