An environmental advocate who works to make hospital practices more environmentally friendly has been named a 2015 MacArthur Fellow. The honor, colloquially known as the MacArthur Genius Award, provides a $625,000 stipend and was given to only 24 people in the world this year.
Gary Cohen co-founded Health Care Without Harm (HCWH). The organization has fundamentally changed the hospital business paradigm from focusing narrowly on only client care to also encompassing the health of surrounding residents, communities, and the planet.
Prior to Cohen and HCWH’s efforts, hospitals were some of the environmentally filthiest enterprises in the U.S. In 1996, the health care industry was the largest source of dioxin, a carcinogenic toxin, contamination in the country. Hospitals had been ignoring the damage they caused to the environment by their excessive use of harmful chemicals, toxic cleaning agents, and fossil fuels and disposal of waste through incineration.
HCWH first focused on eliminating the ubiquitous use of mercury in thermometers, blood pressure gages, and other medical devices. (Mercury is a poisonous neurotoxin that accumulates in tissue. Primarily due to precipitation from coal-fired electric power plant and boiler emissions, excessive mercury levels are found in the world’s oceans and make much seafood hazardous for human consumption, especially by pregnant women.) HCWH’s efforts led to mercury’s virtual elimination in U.S. medical devices and manufacturing and a global treaty that will end world use of mercury in products by 2020.
The organization also played a leading role in reducing the number of carcinogen-emitting hospital waste-incinerators from about 5,600 in the late 1990’s to fewer than 70 in 2006.
Since then, HCWH’s mission has broadened to encompass the hospital industry’s impact on community health, world sustainability, and global climate change. To that end Cohen also founded the Healthy Hospital Initiative and Practice Greenhealth. He and his organizations typically work to improve hospital-industry sustainability through practical, financially viable, voluntary change, rather than regulatory action.