Environmental impacts of health care revealed
Environmental change is harming health, but an Australian-led study reveals that current models of health care are harming the environment, too. The study is reported to be the first global assessment of environmental harms from health care that in turn put human health at risk.
According to the study, published in The Lancet Planetary Health, the healthcare sector causes up to 5% of total global environmental damage, placing it alongside other major global contributors to climate change.
Using a global supply-chain database containing detailed information on healthcare sectors, the team of researchers quantified the supply-chain environmental damage driven by the demand for health care, focusing on seven environmental stressors with known adverse feedback cycles for health: greenhouse gas emissions, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, malaria risk, reactive nitrogen in water and scarce water use.
The international team of sustainability experts found that health care causes global environmental impacts that, depending on which indicator is considered, range between 1% and 5% of total global impacts, and more than 5% for some indicators at country levels.
Study co-author and Director of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute Professor Tony Capon said, “It’s essential that healthcare managers understand the environmental footprint of the health care they provide — they should have standardised ways of measuring this footprint and be equipped to develop informed plans to reduce it.
“There is no doubt that health care is vitally important for protecting and maintaining human health. This has been reinforced during the current pandemic. However, our health systems are part of broader economic systems and can harm health through the resources they use, and the waste and pollution they produce.
“Notably, this is an ethical issue for healthcare workers — why should any hospital be purchasing coal-fired energy when energy generated this way produces toxic air pollution that harms health?
“The purchasing power of health care could be harnessed to reduce the environmental footprint of economies more generally,” Professor Capon said.
2020 has put the health impacts of environmental change squarely on the radar. The Black Summer in Australia has raised consciousness about health impacts of climate change and globally there is a youth-led uprising about the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions before it’s too late.
Lead author Professor Manfred Lenzen from The University of Sydney said, “These findings underscore the need to support health care, especially if we require more of it in the future.”
The University of Sydney’s Dr Arunima Malik, who worked alongside Professor Lenzen on the study, said, “Health care is responsible for not just emissions, but also other environmental impacts such as the use of scarce water resources. Rising healthcare expenditures around the world are driving these impacts, despite technological improvements.
“The study team would like to see governments ensure that sustainability policy is embedded in everyday practice in every sector of the economy, including the healthcare sector.
Professor Capon added that, “Health care should take stock of its environmental footprint, and urgently take steps to reduce this footprint.
“As health workers increasingly call for action on climate change, it’s important to ensure that our own house is in order.”
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