WHO urges hospitals to join climate change battle

By Katie Reid GENEVA Mon May 25, 2009 3:21pm EDT

A monitor in the control room of a hospital in New Orleans February 14, 2006. REUTERS/Lee Celano

A monitor in the control room of a hospital in New Orleans February 14, 2006.

Credit: Reuters/Lee Celano

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By Katie Reid GENEVA (Reuters) - Hospitals and their emergency vehicles, which are major polluters, must join the fight against climate change, the World Health Organization said on Friday.

"The health sector can contribute a lot to reduce the carbon footprint because the health sector in many countries is the second most important user and energy consumption is very high," Maria Neira, director of the WHO's department of public health and environment, told a news briefing.

The amount of energy produced by hospitals and healthcare centers is contributing to a growing number of asthma cases and more respiratory illness as well as a higher number of emergency hospital visits, a WHO report published on Friday showed.

"There is also evidence that the health sector's energy use and resulting toxic emissions undermine the health of the very communities the sector is meant to serve," it said.

The health sector's use of electricity in the United States adds over $600 million per year in direct health costs and more than $5 billion in indirect costs, according to the report, which called on the health sector to make hospitals more green.

The United Nations is urging countries to clamp down on emissions which are expected to cause more droughts, floods, crop failures, spread disease and raise sea levels.

Hospitals should use alternative forms of energy such as solar panels and wind turbines, install energy-efficient lightbulbs as well as buy organic food from local suppliers and make ambulances more environmentally friendly, the WHO said.

"The health sector, with its fleets of hospital vehicles, delivery vehicles, and staff and patient travel, is a transportation-intensive industry," the WHO said, calling for the use of more efficient and alternative-fuel vehicles.

Experts have warned that changes in the world's climate are likely to have a negative impact on the health of many as air becomes more polluted and temperature increases may encourage the spread of infectious diseases, such as malaria and cholera.

"Evidence has shown that global warming will essentially exacerbate those existing health problems," Neira said.

"It will create better conditions for the spread and transmission of certain infectious diseases," she said, adding that extreme weather, such as hurricanes and heatwaves, are also likely to damage people's health.

(Editing by Stephanie Nebehay)

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