The Environmental Effect of the U.S. Health System

by Lillian Pao (’19)

hospital

Fig. 1: A hospital’s dependency on energy systems and equipment can be harmful to public health.

In 2013, the United States spent $3 trillion dollars on its health care system. Hospitals are highly dependent on heating and cooling energy systems, medical and laboratory equipment, sterilization, and more. Due to this dependency on technology, hospitals emit greenhouse gases (GHGs) which can greatly damage public health. Despite this, there has been little effort to try to quantify the consumption-based emissions produced by the health care system.

Dr. Matthew J. Eckelman, from Northeastern University, and his team of researchers estimated the health care’s negative environmental and public health outcomes with an economic input-output life cycle assessment (EIOLCA). They gathered the health care spending data in the health consumption and investment expenditure areas from 2003-2013. Furthermore, the EIOLCA categorized the emissions in the expenditure into nine categories of environmental and human health outcomes. These categories include global warming, stratospheric ozone depletion, respiratory disease from inhalation of primary and secondary matter, inhalation of ground-level ozone, cancer and non-cancer disease, environmental effects of acidification and eutrophication, and ecotoxicity. All of the categories were summed up to equate health care totals, and then compared to U.S. totals. From the comparison, emissions are directly proportional to spending in the EIOLCA models.

The U.S. health care GHG emissions levels have increased over the past decade by more than 30%. In 2013 alone, they totaled to 655 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. A large amount of these GHG emissions came from power generations, government services, and commercial and health care construction. As health care spending increases, so do U.S. health care GHG emissions. Particular methods to reduce U.S. health care GHG emissions include conserving water, reducing waste, having safer cleaning chemicals, and serving healthier foods. These efforts can not only improve the environmental performance of health care, but also reduce the pollution for the public health, and promote health and safety across the United States.

 

References:

  1. J. Eckelman, J. Sherman, Environmental impacts of the U.S. health care system and effects on public health. Plos One (2016). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0157014.
  2. Image acquired from http://invisioncam.com/hospitals-2/
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