When you’re feeling sick, you might go to the clinic or hospital, but what if you’d be healthier staying at home? We tend to think of medical facilities as safe-havens, but many of them emit hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) such as mercury and dioxin that contribute to a number of significant health problems which affect staff, patients, their families, and the general public.
Hospitals can produce up to 25 pounds of waste per patient daily, but that waste represents an environmental footprint that goes beyond just the cost, time, and effort associated with disposing of it. Every pound of hospital products manufactured in the United States generates 32 pounds of waste, while transportation contributes to the environmental impact.
Mercury, one of the most toxic pollutants in medical facilities, can be found in thermometers, blood pressure cuffs, thermostats, fluorescent lights, and more. When elemental mercury is at room temperature, it emits a toxic vapor that can be breathed in and absorbed into the bloodstream. The mercury emitted indoors will eventually make its way outdoors through doors, ventilation systems, and other openings, contaminating outdoor air and posing a health risk to the public.
If the last two years have taught us anything, it is this: harmful airborne particles can change the world. There has never been a time when indoor air quality has been more crucial to people's health and impacted almost every economic, social, cultural, and political aspect of our daily lives. Such an important subject, but what does indoor air quality actually mean?
The term “Indoor air quality” or IAQ applies to the quality of the air within and around a home, office, school, or any other built indoor environment. Its potential impact on the health, comfort, and well-being of occupants is well documented in countless studies for public and private organizations around the world, such as the World Health Organization, Hospitals for a Healthy Environment, and many more. Among the factors influencing IAQ are gases (such as carbon monoxide, radon, and volatile organic compounds), particulates, microbial contaminants (mold, bacteria), or any mass or energy stressor that negatively impacts overall health and well-being.
If you’re feeling anxious after reading all of this, you’re probably right. Indoor air quality requires our attention more than ever before, but that doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause. There are plenty of actions you can take on a personal and collective level that can prevent healthcare-associated infections and improve a hospital’s indoor air quality:
Maintain your Cough Etiquette
When people live and work in a closed environment such as a health care facility, respiratory viruses can spread quickly and cause outbreaks that contribute to patients' and staff' health problems. Respiratory illnesses commonly transmit viruses through droplet spread. They disperse into the air during sneezing, talking, and coughing and remain on surfaces. So, how can you prevent catching or transmitting a respiratory disease?
Maintaining healthy cough etiquette is always a good practice to keep. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it's a good idea to start by covering your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing and use the nearest waste receptacle to dispose of the tissue after use. Suppose you don’t have a tissue nearby, cough into your elbow to reduce the risk of spreading the virus through contact with surfaces or other people. Wearing a mask is also an excellent way to prevent healthcare-related infections (HAI). Try wearing a mask and asking others to wear one when speaking to medical staff, meeting your visitors, or even staying in the same space with several patients.
Double-down on Air Purification
Air purification plays an essential role in maintaining a healthy air environment and dramatically reduces airborne infection rates. Their use to filter unwanted viruses and pollutants has become increasingly important in the fight against COVID-19. In 2019, a study conducted at Sheba at the general and oncological surgery department of the Chaim Sheba Medical Center in Israel found that smart air purification devices can remove up to 99.9% of bacteria in the air. A new government pilot set to trial hospital air purifiers in a plan to limit Covid outbreaks in the UK.
If you have a chance to select the hospital you will be receiving medical care in, check what air purification systems they have installed and see whether or not they have been clinically tested. Opting for those with a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter, several purification stages, and built-in monitoring sensors is always a good idea.
Even if you cannot choose the facility you are staying in, you can improve your indoor air quality by using an additional portable air purifier. Smart devices can create a buffer between you and harmful particles and improve your well-being by using ionization technology, releasing positive and negative ions into the air, and capturing large particles, including dust, pollen, insects, animal hair, and more. Their compact size will allow you to take them along with you to various check-ups, scans, etc.
You don't have to wait until you're sick to improve air quality and make a positive impact on air quality and society as a whole. The EPA suggests becoming involved in improving your community’s medical facilities by getting to know local hospital administrators and helping them work with organizations such as The Union of Concerned Scientists. By partnering with health organizations, hospitals can sponsor certification for those who actively strive to reduce air emissions.
You can also help hospitals raise Mercury awareness in the surrounding community and encourage them to sponsor a "mercury turn-in" event to collect mercury thermometers and batteries. By connecting medical facilities with the community, you can promote an awareness of the importance of indoor air quality among hospital staff and the local community, leading to further improvements.
Speak Up for Hand Hygiene
According to the CDC, healthcare providers averagely clean their hands less than half of the times they should. It poses a significant risk for a serious infection because viruses found on hands settle on different surfaces. When should staff clean their hands? Every time they enter your room and when they remove gloves. Of course, wearing gloves may not be enough to protect against infection, so washing their hands is just as important.
Feel free to use your voice and ask your healthcare providers to wash their hands before examining you and encourage visitors to do the same to protect their health and yours. Also, be sure to wash your own hands before eating food, before touching your face, and after touching hospital surfaces such as bed rails, bedside tables, doorknobs, remote controls, or the phone.
Indoor air pollution can directly contribute to healthcare-related infections and pose quite a challenge for staff, patients, and visitors alike. You can reduce the risk by following simple rules, educating yourself about possible threats, and raising awareness among community members and medical personnel.