Pictured: Victorian memorial statue of Florence Nightingale 1820-1910 in London, England, UK. Photo by Anthony Baggett. 

by David Goldstein

Nurses Week, celebrated earlier this month, honors those front-line workers who heal the sick and are today helping to protect us from a spreading pandemic. The commemoration began with one particular nurse in mind. Starting in 1954 to mark the 100th anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s mission to care for soldiers in the Crimean War, the commemoration was formalized in 1974, centering on May 12, the birthday of Florence Nightingale. 

A British social reformer and statistician, Nightingale revolutionized nursing by recognizing the relationship between the environment and medicine. She is called a Medical Environmentalist for her work in transforming hospital environments, which previously were large, windowless warehouses full of rows of beds. She recognized the importance of windows, light, fresh air and separating patients by condition. Although the method of transmission for infections was unknown during her time, she greatly reduced the spread of infections in hospital environments. 

A nonprofit organization specializing in environmental medicine,  La Médecine Environnementale, on their website, medecine-environnementale.org, traces the origin of environmental medicine to Hippocrates’ treatise, “On Airs, Waters, and Places.” Although many ideals of the ancient Greeks carried through to modern times, medical diagnosis took an unfortunate turn away from the Greeks, into a more “ideological or philosophical-based (non-scientific) approach,” according to the La Médecine Environnementale.

Nightingale put medical science back on track. Now, environmental medical science addresses “the true causes of diseases… not just their symptomatic effects,” according to La Médecine Environnementale, prescribing preventative measures such as “a healthier lifestyle” and “precautionary protection measures to face environmental factors causing the diseases and afflictions.”

Nurses and other medical providers honor Nightingale’s legacy by caring not just for those afflicted by their environments, but also for the environment itself. At the most basic level, this includes managing the waste generated by their own facilities’ medical procedures. 

For example, last year, hospitals in Ventura County salvaged over 7,600 pounds of medical devices no longer able to be sterilized for reuse, packing and providing these to Stryker Incorporated, which operates specialized sterilization and reconditioning equipment. This reuse funded the planting of 93 trees in the Monongahela National Forest. Each year, reforestation efforts occur in a different location, with a number of trees dedicated to each of its customers, in accordance with the amount of medical items salvaged.

Some hospitals in Ventura County not only recycle bottles, cans, paper and the normal items expected for recycling in public places. They also pay extra for separate collection of their food waste, which is hauled away for composting.

You can also help properly manage medical waste. Bring expired medications and used needles to proper disposal facilities, which you can find under the “hazardous” tab at Earth911.com. When you pick up a prescription, at your consultation for how to take a drug or use a syringe, ask the pharmacist to include information about how to properly discard leftover materials.

When you are recovering in a hospital room or waiting in a patient room at a doctor’s office, do not use the container labeled “bio waste” without consulting an attending medical professional. Items in those containers must be specially handled, at great expense. 

You also sometimes have an opportunity for an unusual type of reuse. Some one-time use items used on you, such as scissors and blue plastic sheets, may still be useful to you, and if you ask, medical professionals often allow you to take them home for repurposing. 

David Goldstein is an environmental resource analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency.