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CUMC Town Hall Meeting
To accommodate the schedules of faculty, staff and students, the fall Town Hall meeting led by Dr. Gerald Fischbach will be held on Monday, Oct. 4, at 4 p.m. and repeated on Wednesday, Oct. 6, at 7 a.m. in the P&S Alumni Auditorium.

ENVIRONMENTAL SAFETY

CUMC Embarks on Environmental Self-Audit
First phase will inspect all research labs

Environmental Stewardship

From anesthesia gas to xylene, medical centers and universities utilize and produce a cornucopia of hazardous chemicals as they treat patients and search for new cures. The Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) staff is responsible for making sure CUMC complies with all city, state, and federal environmental laws that regulate those chemicals.

A lot of what EH&S does often goes unnoticed by most employees and faculty, but its work is critical and wide-ranging. It is the responsibility of EH&S to make sure everything put into the air by CUMC boilers, emergency generators and incinerators, or into drains, is monitored. In 2003 alone, EH&S recycled seven miles of lamps and more than 1,000 pounds of batteries, recovered 3,600 pounds of lead from computer monitors, reclaimed 150 pounds of refrigerant and recycled 529 pounds of silver-containing scrap film. Working with SDOS, EH&S sees that every tooth pulled by SDOS dentists is collected and disposed of properly, thereby ensuring that mercury fillings don't end up in landfills. The filters installed in our 50 darkrooms alone prevent more than five pounds of silver per year from going into the Hudson River.

An important part of complying with environmental regulations is training the staff who work with hazardous products. CUMC requires staff to attend EH&S health and safety classes; in addition, EH&S surveys laboratory practices, and conducts specialized training for specific departments.

"We take a proactive, collaborative approach because researchers can only comply with regulations if they know what to do," says Kathleen Crowley, director of environmental health and safety. "Each individual researcher and lab worker contributes to the success we've had in passing city inspections and reducing the volume of waste generated."

Teams of auditors will begin inspecting every research laboratory at Columbia University Medical Center in October for violations of federal environmental laws.

The inspections fulfill an agreement CUMC signed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in March that requires CUMC to audit its own environmental programs, including the handling of hazardous waste in all its laboratories, and report any violations to the EPA.

Robert Lewy, M.D., Ph.D., senior associate dean and chairman of the Institutional Health and Safety Council, welcomes the agreement. "We are delighted to partner with the Environmental Protection Agency to continue to improve our environmental programs," he says. "We have long embraced and supported a commitment to excellence in environmental stewardship."

Large fines have been imposed for improper labeling and handling of hazardous waste in other EPA audits. Correctly labeled bottles, as shown at right, contain the date, name of the principal investigator, and full name of the chemical. Bottles should be capped at all times when not in use.

Kathleen Crowley, director of environmental health and safety, says the self-audit is a good opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of CUMC's environmental programs without the stigma and heavy financial penalties typical of an EPA-led audit.

"The audit is not an option," she says. "We can either wait to be audited by the EPA – where fines are assessed when violations are found – or we can partner with the EPA and self-audit. With our EPA self-audit agreement, we are permitted to correct any violations we find and disclose without penalties being imposed. If the same violation is found on a subsequent EPA audit, however, punitive penalties can and would be assessed."

In 1999, EPA Region 2 began focusing attention on colleges and universities because the EPA found that many institutions were not aware of their responsibilities under various environmental laws. Under the EPA Voluntary Self-Audit Policy, institutions are encouraged to partner with the EPA and self-audit and report violations instead of waiting for a surprise visit from the EPA's auditors.

Surprise audits, like the ones performed on Columbia's Morningside Heights campus and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in March 2001, can be costly. The EPA initially imposed fines of nearly $800,000 on Columbia. Most of the penalty resulted from violations regarding the use of hazardous chemicals and the disposal of hazardous waste.

Phase 1 of the CUMC audit, which will begin Oct. 4, will focus on the handling of hazardous chemicals and waste. Common violations include improperly labeled waste containers, open chemical containers, or failure to collect all hazardous wastes.

Inspections, which will be conducted by an outside environmental consulting firm, will last about 20 minutes. The PI and/or the lab safety manager should be available for questions during the audit.

Upon completion, the auditors will prepare a report for the EPA listing any violations found and describing how CUMC intends to prevent recurrence. This latter part is critical; if the EPA discovers the same violation in a subsequent audit, the fines can be double the original amount that would have been assessed.

Phases 2 and 3 of the audit will begin next year and will involve further inspections of CUMC's physical plant, residential buildings, and all of CUMC's air and water programs.

For more information on the audit, see http: //www.cumc.columbia.edu/dept/ehs/ or contact Kathleen Collins, environmental safety officer (koc4@columbia.edu), or Kathleen Crowley (kc298@columbia.edu).

—Susan Conova


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