Univ. of Washington’s Dept. of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences (UW DEOHS) has 20 labs used for research, education and analytical services. Activities not only focus on environmental and workplace factors that affect health, but practices within.

DEOHS labs haven’t been assessed for their impacts on health and sustainability. DEOHS has the capability and responsibility to provide leadership and serve as an exemplary model. The objectives of this project are to assess current practices in DEOHS labs, identify barriers to and best practices for achieving environmental sustainability and minimizing occupational safety hazards and provide recommendations on how to improve sustainability metrics.

For the first part of the project, we asked the labs to complete a Univ. of Washington Green Laboratories Certification application. There are seven sections on the application that cover key lab sustainability topics. Labs are scored based on their responses and certified if scores meet certification requirements. We utilized the application to collect baseline information by asking labs to complete the application prior to changing practices, so responses reflected current practices. We then followed-up with each lab manager and a group of graduate students, using the application and responses as an interview guide to learn more about barriers and best practices. This baseline information helped us target our sustainability efforts. We describe examples of our activities in the areas of chemical use, energy consumption and solid waste reduction below.

We used hazard criteria developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a framework to assess selected chemicals used in departmental labs. The goal of the chemical assessments was to identify the most hazardous chemicals and select safer alternatives to protect staff and students and minimize negative environmental health impacts. Our department uses over 2,900 chemicals, not including those found in kits used for specific lab procedures. The most granular information on chemicals was obtained by examining chemical hazardous waste data. Over 12,000 lbs of waste were collected from DEOHS labs over a five year period. Of the top 10 hazardous waste chemicals by mass, seven were solvents. We are now working on a solvent selection guide, which will rank solvents using EPA hazard criteria.

During baseline interviews, managers of some molecular biology labs mentioned they were concerned about the health effects of ethidium bromide, which has a reputation as a potent mutagen. Although ethidium bromide has been reported as a strong mutagen, evidence supporting this claim is conflicting. We also assessed two ethidium bromide alternatives that claim to be less hazardous. However, we couldn’t find any information on these chemicals other than what was provided by the supplier/manufacturer. Therefore, we didn’t feel comfortable recommending any one chemical product over another because of major data gaps.

We evaluated the use patterns of several common lab instruments to identify opportunities for saving energy. We used Energy Hub meters to measure the consumption of lab instruments over a set period of time. Then, we computed how long the device would actually need to be turned on over the time period by subtracting energy consumed when the instrument was in standby or turned on, but not in use from the total consumption. In many cases, over 50% energy savings could be achieved simply by turning instruments off when not in use.

We quantified common consumables in academic lab waste streams to investigate opportunities for green purchasing and waste stream diversion. To do this, we first sorted through two days of trash, totaling 42 lbs. About a third of the trash by weight was paper towels from handwashing, 25% was recyclable and about half was landfill (22% of which were gloves). We found many of the hard plastics weren’t in the regular trash, but were disposed in lab glass waste boxes. A recycling guide is being developed using a combination of the trash sort data and observations of hard plastic waste thrown in lab glass waste receptacles. We used purchasing records to identify high-volume consumables that may not have been captured in the trash sort. This gives us a starting point for targeting our searches for green purchasing options and methods for reducing the use of consumables.

Jennifer Krenz graduated with a Master of Public Health degree in 2010 and is a researcher in the Dept. of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the Univ. of Washington. Krenz leads research activities and manages projects focused on improving environmental health and occupational safety outcomes.