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The world of healthcare has taken center stage in the media over the last decade. Our baby boomers are becoming senior citizens – gasp! It has been said that nine months after World War II ended, you could hear the cries of babies across the nation! A remarkable 20% more babies were born in 1946 than ever before. That is a serious statistic. And it is just the beginning of what become known as the “baby boom.” A whopping 76.4 million babies were born from 1946 through 1964 when the surge finally began to lessen. And now, as they boomers walk proudly into the golden era of their lives, we find ourselves with the need to beef up our healthcare needs and their corresponding environments. Create a better environment in hospitals and assisted living spaces; develop better technology; and alternative medicine for a growing populace. And this must be done now as statistics show us that in 15 short years, 1 in 5 Americans will be over the age of 65.

On the eve of a bi-partisan Healthcare reform bill possibly passing the House and the Senate, healthcare is again becoming a critical concern for many after a brief respite from the never ending monologues about the Affordable Healthcare Act in 2010. Apple knows what I’m talking about. Their foray into the healthcare industry through its Apple watch and their impending cloud-based platform HealthKit is evidence of this industry move. Google’s investment in Calico, a company that researches degenerative diseases that affect the elderly, is another example of the broad changes sweeping the healthcare industry.     

So, why, you may ask, are we discussing healthcare in a blog for a cork company? Plain and simple, cork is clean. It can play a vital role in the healthcare industry and deserves a closer look. A microscopic look, in fact. The cellular nature of cork is the key to its many engaging properties. Cork bark features millions of microscopic air pockets, allowing it to be naturally absorbent of both constant weight and thermal/acoustical assets.

Cork is a naturally renewable resource harvested from the Cork Oak (quercus suber) found primarily in the Mediterranean region. It is traditionally harvested by hand, removing only the outer bark from the tree every nine year, never felling the actual tree. The cork oak is protected by many local and international laws to prevent the raping of the land for inappropriate use. The cork oak is listed as a “priority species” by the World Wildlife Foundation. A “priority species” is treated by WWF as one of the most ecologically, economically, and/or culturally important species on our plant. Does this mean we should stop using cork? Just the opposite. Because, as previously mentioned, the cork oak is never felled, its sustainable nature creates a symbiosis between man and nature. The bark needs to be harvested to prevent an early death of the tree. If the cork industry needs decline, this is when we will see the forests threatened. Not because of overuse, but because of underuse. According to WWF, many endangered species rely on these forests for their habitat “including the critically endangered Iberian Lynx, the Iberian Imperial Eagle, and the Barbary Deer, many species of rare birds as well as many fungi, ferns, and other plants.” Future generations of men also depend on the industry for their livelihood. “Cork oak forests also play a key role in maintaining watersheds, preventing erosion and keeping soils healthy. They are a great example of balanced conservation and economic development,” states WWF.

As an eco-friendly flooring resource, cork can withstand the daily traffic inherently encumbered by doctor’s offices and hospitals as well as retirement and rehabilitative homes. It is also a kinder flooring material to walk upon, giving a spring to your step by organically absorbing the pressure of each footstep. Thermal absorption allows for more consistent temperature control where cork is installed. As a flooring option, it keeps warmth trapped inside, keeping the chill off the floor and away from your feet. As a wall covering option, it can more easily regulate heat loss in each room. Acoustical absorption is highly beneficial in these types of healthcare establishments as well. Privacy is king in the healthcare industry, so why should the walls of a healthcare facility be paper thin leading to an inadvertent invasion of privacy? Installing cork as a flooring and/or wall covering material in offices and hospitals would prevent sound from travelling outside of the space it was intended to stay within; a natural secret keeper.

In addition to the thermal and acoustical properties cork affords its users, natural cork flooring is also hypo-allergenic, resistant to mold, fire retardant, and moisture-resistant. But we wouldn’t want those qualities in our healthcare environments, right? Insert sarcastic eye roll here... These are highly sought after attributes that will be essential to the future of healthcare construction and renovation. Frankly, I’m surprised it has taken this long to catch on. Cork isn’t exactly a new thing. But I digress…

Cork is composed of a hydro-phobic substance called suberin, thus giving it all the natural qualities we have listed here. Cleanliness is coveted in the healthcare industry by patients and industry workers alike. It is unnerving to be admitted to the hospital, only to find yourself with more time on your hands than you know what to do with, so you begin examining the crumb filled cracks in the food tray, or the hard water stains in the bathroom, or how housekeeping seems to just be spreading the germs around from room to room with their mop... As the paying client, we must demand a better environment. Architects and contractors should be influencing the decisions about materials as well. We must inform others of the intrinsic value cork freely gives to its users.

Like we have said, cork, at its cellular nature, is an organic super-hero and an eco-friendly resource. The healthcare industry does seem to be a bit behind the times on its championing of this material. This is quite possibly due to the higher cost associated with cork flooring and wall coverings in decades past. However, we are seeing these prices drop dramatically, and come in line with other, more traditional material choices. Continued research and demonstration of its value will help cork become key in the future of healthcare environments, I guarantee you.

March 25, 2015

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