Hidden harm: US healthcare emits more greenhouse gas than entire UK

If the U.S. healthcare sector were ranked as a nation, it would be the world’s 13th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, more than all of the UK, a new study finds.

“Unfortunately, in our quest to take care of individual patients, we’re causing this undue harm,” coauthor Dr. Jodi Sherman, from Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, said in a phone interview.

While training to become an anesthesiologist, Sherman saw what she described as a disturbing amount of waste in the operating room.

“I realized that as much as I love being a doctor, I could not in good conscience practice unless I simultaneously worked to protect the environment from the hidden harm from healthcare itself,” she said.

In 2009, when she was a senior resident at Stanford University, she gave a talk on healthcare pollution. The other doctors challenged her about the magnitude of the problem. She looked for data but found none.

So she enlisted environmental engineer Matthew Eckelman, and the two began quantifying healthcare pollution.

Their new study, published in PLoS ONE, estimates that damage from pollutants connected to healthcare leads to an annual loss of 405,000 to 470,000 years of healthy life, or so-called disability-adjusted life years. The loss equates to roughly the same number of Americans as die every year from preventable medical errors: 44,000 to 98,000, the researchers say.

Moreover, the pollution is growing. In the past 10 years, greenhouse gas emissions for the U.S. healthcare sector shot up by more than 30 percent, bringing the total to nearly 10 percent of the nation’s 2013 emissions, the study found.

Sherman and Eckelman, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, used an economic model based on federal data to calculate healthcare sector pollutants from 2003 to 2013. They estimated emissions from heating and cooling, electricity and energy-intensive goods and services in hospitals, doctors’ offices, nursing homes, pharmaceutical and medical-device manufacturers as well as government programs like Medicaid. Then they assessed public health impacts.

Prior research had calculated that healthcare activities emit 8 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, the authors write. But other pollutants from the healthcare industry have not been previously reported.

The new study looks beyond the carbon footprint. It found that direct and indirect emissions from healthcare caused 12 percent of acid rain, 10 percent of smog formation and 9 percent of respiratory disease from particulate matter in 2013.

The researchers say there’s a “critical knowledge gap” in the medical community about the health consequences of unnecessary waste, and they urge resource-conservation education and leadership.

Dr. Howard Frumkin, dean of the University of Washington School of Public Health in Seattle, also sees a gap.

“Few healthcare leaders are highly informed about environmental dimensions of healthcare delivery – about the economic consequences, the health consequences or the moral aspects,” he told Reuters Health by email.

Frumkin, who wasn’t involved in the current study, commended it for shining a light on healthcare pollution. “Greater awareness should lead to greater adoption of environmentally sound practices,” he said.

Medical professionals can be better environmental stewards without sacrificing quality of care, according to Sherman and Eckelman.

“We don’t want to imply that we should compromise on patient care for the sake of these emissions,” Eckelman told Reuters Health. “But there are many opportunities to reduce this waste without compromising quality of care and without affecting the patient experience at all.”

Well-meaning regulatory efforts to reduce infections have led to the increasing use of single-use disposables and more medical waste, Sherman said.

“Virtually everything is disposable, from linens to unused drugs that were opened and never administered. Probably every physician would agree they see enormous amounts of waste and disposables, and they just don’t know what to do about it,” Sherman said.

“You certainly need to use sterile and disposable goods,” she said. “But this trend is just over the top.”

Reuters reported early this year that American doctors and hospital throw out almost $3 billion in unused cancer drugs each year because the medicines come in supersized single-use packages. (See

SOURCE: PLoS ONE, online June 9, 2016.