Skoll Foundation


Health Care Without Harm

Skoll Awardee(s): Gary Cohen
Award Year: 2006
Issue Area(s) Addressed: Environmental Sustainability, Health, Sustainable Markets

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“We can no longer support healthy people on a sick planet. If we’re going to support the conditions for people to be healthy all over the world, we have to have a clean environment. Health care can be a driver of that transformation – and should be – in the name of healing.”

Sub-Issue Areas: Clean Energy; Integrated Health; Living Conditions; Responsible Supply Chains Climate change, chemical contamination and unsustainable resource use exacerbate ill health the world over — increasing pressure on already thinly stretched healthcare systems. The health sector itself, which represents 8-10 percent of global GDP, paradoxically is a significant source of pollution and contributes to the trends that undermine public health through the products and technologies it deploys, the resources it consumes, the waste it generates, and the buildings it constructs and operates.

The Skoll Awardee: Gary Cohen was a travel writer whose life was changed by an assignment to draft a community guidebook about toxic chemicals. After meeting mothers working to protect their families from toxic dumps and other chemical threats, he devoted his life to environmental health. He co-directed the National Toxics Campaign and co-founded the Military Toxics Project, then helped launch a free clinic for survivors of the chemical disaster in Bhopal, India. He co-founded Health Care Without Harm in 1996, addressing the irony that the health care sector – whose practitioners take an oath to do no harm – was one of the largest sources of dioxins, mercury, and other toxic chemicals poisoning the environment. Beginning with partnerships with large providers such as Kaiser Permanente and Catholic Health Services, who adopted safer disposal practices and galvanizing group purchasers of health care supplies to demand safer products, HCWH catalyzed adoption of new standards throughout the industry for safer plastics, building materials, and cleaning products, healthier food, and reliance on sustainable and lower emission energy sources. At the time of the Skoll Award, HCWH had achieved a near complete phasing out of mercury thermometers (the main source of mercury poisoning) in the US and was taking that progress worldwide. More than 90 percent of US medical waste incinerators had been replaced with safer technologies.

Impact since joining the portfolio in 2006:

  • Global coalition includes 500 organizations in 53 countries.
  • Leadership in development and launch (2014) of the U.S. Health Care Resilience Initiative, committing to a climate-resilient U.S. health care system.
  • Launched initiative with World Health Organization to eliminate mercury-based medical devices by 2020.
  • Co-created the Healthier Hospitals Initiative (HHI) to embed sustainability into the core operations of American healthcare. 20 percent of US hospitals are implementing HHI strategies focused on leadership, energy, chemicals, purchasing, waste, and food.
  • Global Green and Healthy Hospitals (GGHH) initiative working to improve practices in 30,000 hospitals by 2018.



© 2015 Skoll Foundation.