Styrofoam Monster – a human carcinogen


We live under the assumption that the common products we use day-to-day are safe. However, serious questions remain about the health effects of many of these products. Through investigation and human and animal studies, sometimes these widely used products are found to cause serious health problems.

Substances that may put people at an increased risk of cancer are identified and listed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) part of the World Health Organization (WHO) and in the Report on Carcinogens (RoC), a scientific and public health document prepared by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) for the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  This year,  both agencies independently added styrene to their lists. IARC listing styrene as “probably carcinogenic to humans” and NTP calling styrene “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen”.  Being listed under this category means that there is sufficient evidence showing a cause-and-effect relationship between exposure to styrene and cancer. According to the NTP, styrene metabolizes when it comes in contact with the human body, bonding with oxygen to form styrene oxide, a chemical that has the ability to alter DNA and cause cancer.

Not familiar with styrene?… I am quite certain that we have all used one of its products at some time. Polystyrene is a petroleum-based plastic made from the styrene monomer and is marketed under the trade name Styrofoam.

Styrofoam is a widely used product, popular for its light weight, water-resistant and insulating properties. It is commonly used as a packing material and for take-out  food containers.  At UHN, about 2 million Styrofoam cups are used by patients, visitors and staff each year.

In addition to its potentially negative health effects, Styrofoam is also harmful to the environment. In most places, including UHN, Styrofoam is not recyclable and is therefore disposed of as trash. Styrofoam will take centuries to break down in landfill and often ends up in oceans where it is very harmful to marine animals. While it is possible to recycle Styrofoam, the technology is expensive and not as sustainable as a switch to an alternative. Before we even have a chance to use Styrofoam products the manufacturing process creates both air and water pollution.

The “Styrofoam Phase-Out” project launched at UHN in 2011 is ongoing. Already about 21 departments across UHN have discontinued their use of Styrofoam cups and are using paper cups as an alternative. Paper cups are recyclable at UHN in the metal/glass/plastic blue bins. However because the cups in the system are better for cold liquids,  we are investigating different paper cups on the market and trialing them with hot beverages in some units.

Project update: after months of sorting out and trialing cups from different suppliers, we have narrowed down the running to two choices. Once a final selection is made these new cups should appear in the system  for all departments across UHN to use. We hope this will encourage a UHN-wide phase out of Styrofoam.

UHN finally wins award after 10 years- “Highest Workplace Participation Rate” for 2011 Clean Air Commute

Here at Energy and Environment, there are many aspects that we work on to keep UHN operating in an environmentally friendly manner. The most rewarding of theses is our engagement and awareness portion. We get the pleasure of meeting UHN staff, educating them about proper waste management and energy conservation and among other things, we encourage and support their green ideas. UHN staff are green supporters. We strive for “patient and planet center care” in our day-to-day duties, from joining the UHN Green Team to taking the time to sort our recyclables from garbage. We support environmental programs and initiatives; and we are participators in green activities that better our health and environment. As such, Energy and Environment is always on the lookout for activities and events where all UHN staff can be green, increase their environmental awareness and have fun all at the same time.

UHN has been participating in Pollution Probe’s Clean Air Commute since 2002 in record numbers. This year, close to 600 UHN employees participated in the 2011 Clean Air Commute, avoiding over 14 tonnes of pollutants from being released into the air. But besides being campaigners, we’re also fierce competitors- especially when prizes are up for grabs. All staff who participated in the event were entered into a draw for a chance to win great prizes. For the UHN-only draw of a bicycle, a winner was chosen randomly out of all UHN commuter log entries. Congratulations to Ms. Nadia Irish for winning the Mongoose Men’s 26″ Precision Bicycle.

Besides prizes for individual participation, Pollution Probe also awards companies as a whole for their participation in the Clean Air Commute event. When the event concludes, Pollution Probe ranks and chooses the top companies for employee participation in their staff-size category. UHN along with nine other companies were grouped in the over ‘5001 employees’ category. Even though we have been participating in the Clean Air Commute event since 2002 and even with many staff signing up, joining the Blue Crew and choosing greener commuting modes, sadly after 10 years we were still never winners in these competitions…till this year! With the reign handed over, I was the new Clean Air Commute coordinator and I was going to make sure that we showed our competitive side- no one can out ‘green‘…out ‘blue’ us!

UHN staff showed their support by participating and encouraging their colleagues to join the 2011 Clean Air Commute. UHN has won the award for Highest Workplace Participation rate in Category F (5001+ employees). Congratulations UHN! Our support of each other and of green initiatives have made us winners. This proves that UHN staff are not losers, we’re just slow winners.

On behalf of your 2011 Clean Air Commute coordinator (Reetu Gobardhan) and the rest of Energy and Environment, thank you UHN for your participation in the 2011 Clean Air Commute, allowing us to win our first award from Pollution Probe after ten years. For your continued support of green initiatives, thank you UHN, thank you!

Please click on the following link to read about UHN’s Clean Air Commute: Clean Air Commute (June 13 – June 19)- UHN staff show their blue side!

Climate Change and Your Health

We have all begun to notice the changes in our seasonal weather- warmer winters and scorching summers. With the scientific, political and celebrity publicity that our warming planet has received as of recent, the concept of climate change is to some degree understood by most people. Climate change is no longer just an environmental issue. Weather and climate have shaped human distribution geography and have affected human health for millennia. Without a doubt there exists a climate-health relationship. We are living through a major climate shift that is and will continue to affect us.

Reading the morning newspaper and watching the television news, headlines of the drought that has led to the famine plaguing the Eastern Africa Region (Horn of Africa) are everywhere as of recent. The graphic images of children wasting away are disturbing. Due to the drought in this region, more than 10,000 people have died and the lives of over 12 million are in jeopardy. We know that these numbers are huge, but for some perspective, the number of people that have died is equivalent to eliminating about all of UHN employees. The number of people suffering and in jeopardy is equivalent to a drought affecting all residents of Ontario. I am shocked but I have sadly become “accustomed” to this type of news. With so many distresses arising out of climate change, this is just another news headline to me. I am disgusted with myself for even admitting that. But it is true, such news are frequent. Climate change is here, affecting us, and we are growing accustomed to it. So I switch off the television, turn the newspaper page to something more entertaining, till I hear again about the next “big” climate change disaster.

Drought is not something that we fear here in Toronto. We have our own climate change related issues. Scientists have known that climate change will bring about more extreme and more frequent heat waves. Here in Toronto, we have experienced six heat alerts for this summer alone. For me, I enjoy warm temperatures; but there is a serious side of these summer scorchers. From mild heat rashes to heat strokes to heat related deaths, I am certain that this summer our hospitals have dealt with such issues.

Other climate change related health concerns include:

  • the rise of infectious diseases, especially those that are vector-borne. In areas where low temperatures restrict the transmission of vector-borne diseases, climate change could tip the ecological balance and could trigger epidemics. Despite using repellents like sprays, fancy candles, etc., who hasn’t been bitten by a mosquito this summer?! Mosquito-borne infections increase with warming temperatures
  • food poisoning through microbial proliferation- just leave a slab of chicken out and see what happens…(for the sake of our legal team, please don’t try this)
  • increased allergies due to a longer pollen season

To deal with such health issues, the public turns to healthcare professionals for guidance. But it is our hospitals that inadvertently contribute to climate change and these health issues. Hospitals are energy intensive. For example, our rising temperatures increase the demand for electricity to cool our offices, our patient rooms, etc. This is resource intensive, demanding the combustion of fossil fuels- that can in turn generate airborne particulates that can lead to increased respiratory diseases.

Climate change seems so much bigger that us- how powerful is one person to make a difference. The many ideas, initiatives, programs and policies to help alleviate climate change come from government action; but as healthcare professionals, we too have a particular responsibility. The voice of healthcare professionals is powerful. From our day-to-day encounters with patients, we can identify those health problems that can be linked to climate change. We can engage in initiatives to reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions and most importantly, we have the ability to encourage others to do the same in our personal, professional and public lives.

Energy and Environment knows that much can be done with our cooperation, doing our little part to contribute to a greater purpose. We are always encouraging UHN employees to conserve energy. Please visit Energy Efficiency @ UHN for tips on how you can conserve energy at work. Also on our Energy and Environment website, we share greener ways to get to work that would reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions released into the atmosphere: UHN Carpool Zone, Cycling @ UHN.

Climate change is a big issue which has no quick fix. But the good news is that there are a lot of things that we can do to mitigate the effects. For me, my little contribution involves turning off the lights in unoccupied areas and using the public transit to get to work.

Climate change is no longer a distant thought, it is here.

The 3Rs and the TWH Summer Clean Up Campaign

There are markers that remind us of the places we have been, the things we have done, all that we have seen and the people we have met along the journey. They tell the tales of our good and bad memories, of our good and bad days. We have held onto these markers for fear that if we rid ourselves of them, we shall one day face regret of that which we have lost. These markers are not albums or pictures, nor are they our wrinkled post cards and letters; but rather the collection of belongings piling up around us- clutter.

Is it not better if we be charitable, if we pass on that which we do not use to those who will? Our landfill Kilimanjaros’  show that we are just not dealing with enough of our waste. There is a finite amount of space that is available to us. What a shame it would be to have it dedicated to waste storage.

For me, I am as neat as the next freak, and not ashamed of it. But my office space tells a different story- one of which is a complete lie about me, let it be known! Papers stacked, scattered stationery, boxes of ???, have somehow managed to invade my space. It is not a major mess by any means; it is just my organized clutter. So if you have ever had to step over piles of paper, electronics and those old unidentifiable items, I am here to tell you that you are not alone. Lots of people are drowning in clutter.

Here at UHN, there are a lot of items in our departments, on our office desks and floors. This was the observation made by one of the housekeeping supervisors at TWH during our monthly waste meeting. We discussed ways to deal with clutter and a spectacular idea was born- the TWH Summer Clean Up Campaign.

For the event, staff across TWH were asked to look around their department or office for unwanted, non-medical items that were no longer being used. Many departments had already upgraded many things so they donated the old ones to the event. Many staff brought items down themselves from their department for the event, sometimes making multiple trips. After all unwanted items across TWH were collected, all TWH staff were invited to attend the TWH Summer Clean Up Campaign on July 20. Staff showed up in great numbers, coworkers side by side browsing through the variety of items to choose from. There were furniture items (storage cabinet, coat rack, stool, ceramic lamps, water cooler, etc.), electronics (music systems, microwaves, television, colour printers, fax machines, etc.) and stationary (ink and toner cartridges, binders and folders, medical dictionaries, etc.) available for staff to choose from. And here was the best part, staff were allowed to take items not only for their department, but for their home…and all for FREE (priority was given to UHN departments).

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  • An estimated 4511 pounds (2046 kg) of items that once cluttered departments across TWH were contributed by staff for the TWH Summer Clean Up Campaign.
  • Of that, about 3973 pounds (1802 kg) of items were swapped by staff for their departments, offices or home.
  • The remaining estimated 538 pounds (244 kg) of items will be recycled.

Sigh…what does this mean! Let’s discuss this weight in terms of the Canadian beaver…the equivalent weight of about 102 beaver were cluttering dams departments at TWH; the campaign allowed for 90 beavers to be swapped among departments, and the equivalent weight of about 12 beavers (left over after the event) was sorted for recycling. Sigh again…lets think of dollars instead of beavers. TWH staff decluttered approximately $16,000 of unwanted furniture,  electronics and stationery from their departments. This would have ended up being trashed, but the TWH Summer Clean Up Campaign allowed staff to swap for what they needed, saving close to $9,000 approximately. About $7000 worth of unwanted items were sorted for recycling.  

The TWH Summer Clean Up Campaign is a practical example of the 3Rs of waste management reduce, reuse and recycle.  This ‘swap’ event allowed for items that would have been discarded to be reused by departments that need them, thereby extending the life of that item. Items that were not swapped (left over after the event) were sorted and will be recycled accordingly. Besides these, the TWH Summer Clean Up Campaign was more of a revelation for many staff- the realization that reducing the number of items frivolously ordered would later reduce the build-up and clutter in our departments.

If missed the Summer Clean Up then visit the Energy and Environment Virtual Swap Room available  on the intranet where you can post your unwanted items and browse for items that are needed for your department.  If you want to swap your old stuff outside of UHN there are many tools online to help…Freecycle is just one of many.

For the TWH Summer Clean Up Campaign, TWH staff came out in droves to show their support of this green initiative. Thank you! I would also like to thank the Volunteer Resources department at TWH for providing me with great volunteers for this event. The campaign was a success due to the support, willingness and assistance provided by these volunteers. Thank you!

Clean Air Commute (June 13 – June 19)- UHN staff show their blue side!

June 13th, walking against a brisk wind on an early Monday morning I hurried to work. Stuck at a red light, I couldn’t help but notice the variety of ways people get around- walking, transit, driving…in a stroller. This was a ‘special’ morning for me and for those participating in UHN’s Clean Air Commute- it was the first day of the challenge to find a more environmentally friendly way of getting to UHN.

Energy and Environment has always supported programs that can simultaneously better our health and our environment. So just as last year, UHN again committed and participated in Pollution Probe’s Clean Air Commute. This eco-friendly competition challenges us to find ways of getting to work that would reduce the amounts of pollutants we release into the air. Here’s a sad statistic: in Ontario, 1800 people die prematurely each year due to poor air quality (Source: Pollution Probe). Energy and Environment campaigns for patient and planet centered care- protect the environment, protect our health.

This year, close to 600 staff signed up for the Clean Air Commute event- joining the UHN Blue Crew and recording their commuter log. According to your log, the most popular form of green commuting modes was the good ol’ transit. The second most popular was cycling of course, as if you hadn’t already noticed the mounds of packed bike cages. On the topic of biking to work, as part of the UHN’s Clean Air Commute event, bicyclists were treated to a free bike repair workshop on June 14th on the lawns of TGH. Many came with their bikes in tow for the chance to get their repair questions answered- “what’s that racket about, why’s that cable loose, what’s this hoopla, what’s that hoopla…” (Thanks to all those who showed up and participated).

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So 600 staff commuting in a greener way, what’s the result of all of our efforts- we avoided close to 14 tonnes of pollutants from getting into our air! Congratulations and great job team.

With many of the participants already green commuters year round, why then would they take part in this challenge- maybe it was their green blue heart, or maybe it was to be a part of something bigger, or maybe it was all of the FREE stuff to be won (exotic vacation, swanky bicycles, etc.). But whatever the reason, staff showed their support in droves. Thank you!

So UHN, did you notice your skies bluer and your air cleaner? Green commuting is not just a challenge for a week, but it should be a lifestyle change. Giving staff ideas and options to be greener is part of Energy and Environment’s mission.  There are greener options to suit your style of getting to work.  So how do you get to work…?

  • Cycling: good for the environment, good for the body. We’ve got more bike racks in place and we’ve launched the BIXI bike sharing program. We’ve also hosted fun events such as the Cycling Town Hall event held on earth day;
  • Carpooling: because everyone needs a sing along buddy. We’ve created a UHN Carpool Zone to help UHN staff find coworkers to carpool with;
  • Public transit: it’s the safer, faster, more green way to get downtown;
  • Walking: it’s green, it’s free, need I say more;
  • Working from home…umm Boss, I have a green idea…

Thanks again to all of those who participated!

Guest Blogger- All about ME: the new girl watching your bins

Hello! I’m Reetu Gobardhan- new UHN employee and this month’s Guest Blogger. I work for Energy and Environment and chances are, I’ve already met you or I’ve emailed you or I’ve bummed directions around the hospital from you. But how did I get to be a part of UHN’s Energy and Environment? Flashback 6 months…

With a BSc in Environmental Science in one hand and a Graduate Certificate in Environmental Assessment and Remediation in the other, I was on the hunt for a job. One late night, I spotted an internship for UHN’s Energy and Environment and I applied. I had all but forgotten about the application when I got the phone call that started it all…

I had an interview, to my surprise. A few days after (December 23rd 2010), I received ‘shocking’ news- they wanted to hire ME?! This shall remain the Christmas present that will never be topped. As the New Year started, Energy and Environment had a new girl- the Eco Intern aka Waste Ambassador.

Being the intern, I was already being introduced to the many facets of Energy and Environment. I have learnt a great deal from being involved in projects such as the ‘UHN Styrofoam Phase-Out,’ waste audits, researching green product alternatives, and many other waste reduction initiatives and programs. There are so many things that I learned and that list keeps growing with each passing day. I have also learned an important aspect of Energy and Environment- not only do they help UHN be good to the environment, but they also save the organization money. That’s something many don’t know. Close to $150,000 a year across UHN is saved by recycling alone- by simply being able to sort your garbage into the correct bins.

From the relentless efforts of Ed Rubinstein (Manager of Energy and Environment) and Kady Cowan (Energy Steward), there are now many staff who care about how their day-to-day hospital activities affect the environment and are well-informed about how they can help. On the topic of my coworkers, as anyone who has met them will tell you, they are down-to-earth and helpful. I enjoy coming to work and seeing them everyday. Not only is it part of their job to care for the environment but in reality, they live by the same principles they teach- recycle properly, do your part in energy conservation, and overall, be a steward for the environment. They have influenced me to be an even bigger supporter and promoter of environmental initiatives and programs. Without a doubt, their hard work has encouraged many to do their little part in protecting the environment.

With the end of the internship nearing, I was offered a contract to stay with Energy and Environment a while longer. I was no longer an intern, but a part of UHN. Ed and Kady will never really know just how grateful I am for this opportunity (Thank you).

In closing, as this is my forum at this moment, there is one message that I’d like to relay to all of you reading this blog- please take the time and sort your garbage into the correct bins and know that we need your support!