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Health care is coming to grips with its pollution problem

Health care is coming to grips with its pollution problem


Pollution from the industry is growing

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An ambulance drives down a road in Brooklyn on December 01, 2020 in New York City. 
An ambulance drives down a road in Brooklyn on December 1st, 2020, in New York City. 
Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Pollution from the health care industry is harming the communities it serves, says a study published today in the journal Health Affairs. If you count up how many fewer healthy years people in the US lived as a result of all the pollution the industry pumped out in 2018, it would add up to a collective sum of 388,000 years, the research found. That’s similar to the number of years of life lost due to preventable medical errors.

“I’m putting a bandaid on a bullet wound”

“I feel like I’m putting a bandaid on a bullet wound,” says Renee Salas, an emergency medicine physician and lead author of another article also published in Health Affairs today that urges health care policymakers to consider the threats posed by climate change

Salas is already seeing the effects in her practice, from older adults suffering from heat strokes to patients struggling to breathe because of pollution and seasonal allergies that have gotten worse as the planet heats up. “I can try to open their lungs back up with treatments in the emergency department,” Salas said. “But then I send them back out into the very same environment.”

The problem is only growing over time, with greenhouse gas emissions from health care rising 6 percent between 2010 and 2018. That’s why health care providers are increasing pressure on their industry to tackle its environmental footprint. The new research is part of an entire December issue of Health Affairs dedicated to climate change and public health.

Health care makes up 8.5 percent of all US greenhouse gas emissions

Overall, health care makes up 8.5 percent of all US greenhouse gas emissions. The biggest source of health care pollution was its supply chain, which accounted for 82 percent of health care-associated emissions. That means the way medicines, medical supplies, and equipment are made could be contributing to pollution that’s making people sick. The numbers in the study on greenhouse gas emissions and toxic air pollutants are estimates based on how much money health systems spent on goods and services. Since this method doesn’t account for gases used for anesthesia that escape operating rooms, the true environmental footprint could be even larger. Anesthetic gases are even more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to heating up the planet. 

Instead of simply sending patients back out to an unhealthy environment, health care providers need to step up and eventually eliminate their contributions to climate change, Salas tells The Verge. Salas and the authors of the emissions study both recommend that Medicaid offer incentives to health care providers to cut down pollution. Medicaid reimbursements, for example, could be tied to climate efforts in the same way they were tied to efforts to desegregate hospitals in the 1960s. The emissions study also recommends mandating that health care systems report on how much pollution they’re generating and make plans to cut down.

“The health care system should be the first.”

England is the only country in the world that mandates reporting already, according to the study. In October, England’s National Health Service declared that it would become the first national system to slash emissions to net zero by 2040. 

“I personally believe that the health care system should be the first to try to reach net zero [carbon dioxide emissions] because we have to practice what we preach,” Salas says. The global economy needs to get to net zero emissions — a combination of cutting down pollution as much as possible and then offsetting whatever is left — by the middle of the century to avoid the worst effects of climate change, according to climate scientists. “Climate action is a prescription for health; we have to lead and fulfill that prescription for our patients.”