Truly, it wasn't my fault. I was enjoying the Skoll World Forum and the Huffington Post publisher, Arianna Huffington, had to be interviewed early, so I was asked to go back for filming in 30 minutes – only to have a studio light explode right by my face as I returned. A stream of chemicals and smoke rose towards the ceiling and fire alarms sounded right across Oxford's Saïd Business School.
The incident reminded me of the myriad ways in which we are exposed to potentially hazardous chemicals, even when we think we are relatively safe, as in hospitals. Many of these chemicals leak slowly into the air, dust and water, entering our food and bodies. Yet whose bottom line accounts for tackling this shadow side of health?
One answer is Health Care Without Harm. I asked its founder, Gary Cohen, how he got started. The answer? He began as a travel writer, but then his life changed when he was researching a guidebook about toxic chemicals. After meeting mothers fighting to protect their families against toxic dumps, he plunged into environmental health. He served as co-director of the US National Toxics Campaign and co- founder of the Military Toxics Project, and also helped to launch a free clinic to help survivors of the Bhopal disaster in India.
Health Care Without Harm, founded in 1996, is now an international coalition of more than 500 organisations in over 50 countries, exploiting the leverage of combined purchasing and lobbying to drive detoxification – without sacrificing patient safety and care.
Incineration of medical waste is a key source of dioxin and mercury. Cohen's team helps hospitals move away from incineration by showing that sterilising medical waste and then disposing of it in a landfill site is both safer and cheaper. After the forum closed, he emailed me a slide showing the number of US hospital waste incinerators falling from 5,000 in 1994 to 83 by 2006. I am sure there are other pressures at work, but this direction of change seems clear and hopeful.