Environmental exposure is top of mind for Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy. During a lecture last week at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Medicine Research, McCarthy, who has worked in environmental safety for more than 20 years, spoke to a small group of medical students about the EPA’s mission to protect public health.

“I think hospitals have been an important ally for us,” said McCarthy in a discussion after her lecture. “They’ve been working with us to make sure their patients are well cared for in a way that doesn’t also provide opportunities for other problems to arise.”

Part of that involves making sure hospitals are using cleaning fluids and chemicals that safely and effectively eliminate pathogens. McCarthy pointed to Health Care Without Harm, a largely nurse-led initiative, that focuses on how hospitals tackle medical waste and incorporate the greenest chemicals possible to soften the impact on patients.

Hospitals face the challenge of not only recognizing environmental pollution as a cause for hospital visits, especially for asthma cases, but also working to address the issue on a broader level. After visiting numerous asthma clinics across the United States, McCarthy has noticed a change in the way hospital staff are addressing public health concerns. “Hospitals are beginning to realize, in particular pediatric hospitals, that they see repeat patients all the time, not just in an emergency setting, but having a much broader and more community-based way of addressing asthma in kids.”

When she visited a few hospitals in Texas and the Cleveland Clinic, she spoke with physicians who noticed their kids were constantly revisiting the hospital. After a second look, physicians realized a lot of revisits were happening on bad air quality days and a new approach was needed.

“Instead of spending very expensive emergency room time, they needed to work with the kids in the home and the families to manage these cases in a much more holistic way," McCarthy said. "As a result, they are having much greater success in reducing the amount of kids repeating visits to the emergency room.”

As nurses and doctors take a step back, she said, "they’ll see the challenges they’re facing, not just with kids, but with adults, is that air pollution is impacting cardiac injuries and illnesses. There are opportunities to think more broadly to address these issues as a nation and on the community level.”