World first: International study reveals global environmental impacts of health care

Environmental change is harming health, but our current models of health care are harming the environment too.

An Australian-led, multiregional study has found that the health care sector causes up to 5 per cent of total global environmental damage, placing it alongside other major global contributors to climate change.

The study, published today (Thursday 16 July) in the prestigious journal, The Lancet Planetary Health, is the first global assessment of environmental harms from health care, that in turn put human health at risk.

Using a global supply-chain database containing detailed information on health care 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, sulphur 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 per cent and 5 per cent of total global impacts, and more than 5 per cent for some indicators at country levels.

Study co-author, Professor Tony Capon, Director of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute says: “It’s essential that health care 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 health care 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 concludes.

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 now 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, says: “These findings underscore the need to support health care, especially if we require more of it in the future.”

Dr Arunima Malik from The University of Sydney, who worked alongside Professor Lenzen on the study, says: Health care is responsible for not just emissions, but also other environmental impacts such as the use of scarce water resources. Rising health care 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 health care sector.

“Health care should take stock of its environmental footprint, and urgently take steps to reduce this footprint,” says Professor Capon.

“As health workers increasingly call for action on climate change, it’s important to ensure that our own house is in order.”

The project was funded by the Australian Research Council, National eResearch Collaboration Tools and Resources project.

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