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Lagging Behind and Out of Control: The U.S. health care system's carbon footprint

U.S. health care system, health care system's carbon footprint, surgery carbon footprint, environmental impact of hospitals, medical facilities' waste management, greenhouse gas emissions

The health care system in the United States needs a total makeover. Better yet let’s tear it all down and start fresh. Okay, it may not be feasible to start fresh with our health care system, but some serious changes need to be made. The effectiveness of our health care system is decreasing while costs are drastically increasing. Tell you something you do not know, right?

Did you know the carbon footprint of our health care system is outrageous? So, not only are we paying high prices for what is suppose be a twenty-first century state-of-the-art health care system, we are forced to support a polluting, energy draining monster.

According to a 2009 research article published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, the health care system accounts for eight percent of the United State’s total carbon footprint. This includes the carbon footprint of hospitals, health facilities, surgical procedures, pharmaceutical manufacturing and more. I know what you are thinking, eight percent does not sound that bad. On the contrary, eight percent is 546 million metric tons of carbon being released each year! To bring this into even more perspective, this is 30 times more than the estimated carbon footprint of England’s health network of 18 million tons of carbon.

Surgery and the maternity ward appear to contribute the most to this carbon footprint. For example, a 2012 study found that minimally invasive surgery alone had a carbon footprint of almost 356 thousand tons of carbon each year.

How can we possibly have this large of a carbon footprint with our health care system? This system is supposed to improve our health and wellbeing not contribute to its demise. Hey, we will perform surgery on your knee all the while polluting your air, rivers and lands. Ah, no thanks.

The large carbon footprint is partly due to inefficient running of some very large facilities. I mean you have seen the size of some of these hospitals and other healthcare facilities. The cost and energy used for heating, ventilation and air conditioning is astronomical. Furthermore, hospitals are running around the clock. And even health care facilities that are only open normal business hours still heat and cool the buildings in the off-hours.

Additional areas that contribute to the footprint include water, lighting and waste management. Both the use of water and the heating of that water is something most medical facilities could improve on. According to a 2007 research study, only 29.3 percent of water was used during surgical hand scrubbing. This led to almost 142 thousand liters of water being wasted during surgical hand washing! Decreasing the temperature of hot water and changing to low flow facets would greatly reduce this waste of water and energy without compromising the health and safety of patients.

Lighting up those massive buildings uses up a great deal of electricity and, therefore, a lot of non-renewable fossil fuels. Reducing electricity usage through shutting off computer monitors during off-hours and replacing old light bulbs with LED energy-efficient light bulbs are relatively easy steps to take and save a lot of money, too. For facilities that want to take it to the next level, purchasing renewable energy credits through the utility company and installing solar panels can chip away further at that massive carbon footprint and lower costs more. Other industries have long since made these environmentally friendly changes. It is time for the health care industry as a whole to do the same.

Waste management and recycling is an important step in reducing the environmental impact of our health care system. One way to reduce waste is to switch from disposable items to reusable ones. For example, sharps waste, which includes syringes and other sharp objects used, are stored in “sharps containers.” According to a 2012 research study published in Waste Management and Research , a large hospital that switches from disposable sharps containers to reusable sharps containers may prevent over 30 tons of plastic and 5 tons of cardboard from ending up in the landfill.

Implementing recycling programs within hospitals and other health care facilities is another way to divert waste. The University of Chicago Medical Center, for example, implemented a plastic recycling program, which keeps approximately 500 pounds of waste out of the landfill each day.

Additional measures health care facilities can take to reduce their carbon footprint and environmental impact are using environmentally friendly cleaning agents, offering organic and local food options in the cafeteria, and going paperless with their documentation.

Amazingly enough many of these environmentally friendly changes would also help reduce costs within the health care system. Whether the cost savings would trickle down to us – the patients – is debatable. Regardless, making these changes are a step in the right direction for any hospital, pharmaceutical company or health care facility.

So my question to you is…how well do you know your health care facilities? Do they have environmentally friendly practices? Let your local health care providers know you want and support decisions that decrease their carbon footprint. The more pressure they get from patients and the community, the more it will become a priority.

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Find out what your health care providers are doing to reduce their environmental impact

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