Healthcare is in the business of promoting and facilitating personal wellness. Talented and compassionate doctors, nurses, and professional support staff are excellent at achieving this objective.
However, the industry’s sprawling environmental footprint is increasingly problematic, undermining its guiding principle to “do no harm.” The negative implications of climate change are becoming more apparent, and they’re putting people’s health outcomes at risk.
That’s why more than 200 medical and health journals published editorials stating that climate change is the “greatest threat to global public health” and calling on governments to invest in solutions to combat this crisis.
As an industry, we don’t have to wait for government intervention. There are steps we can take right now to elevate our awareness and improve our practices to minimize our environmental impact.
Understanding Healthcare’s Climate Impact
The US healthcare sector is a sprawling, $4 trillion industry with a carbon footprint to match. One analysis found that the US healthcare sector is responsible for 8.5 percent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, an increase of 6 percent since 2010.
Worldwide, if the healthcare sector were a country, it would be the 13th largest global greenhouse gas emitter, a staggering sum demonstrating the sector’s expansive repercussions on the environment. At the same time, its physical waste footprint is enormous.
The US healthcare sector is the second-largest industry contributing to landfill waste worldwide, as everything from food packaging to medical waste contributes to the sector’s mountain of garbage generated every year.
Additionally, toxic chemicals, frequently used for disinfection or released as byproducts of existing processes, often find their way into waste runoff that infiltrates municipal water.
Simply put, the entire healthcare industry – from the first patient procedures to post-treatment disinfection – produces problematic byproducts that harm the environment and contribute to climate change.
Here’s how we can together start changing that trend.
#1 Reduce Reliance on Single-use Plastics
Single-use plastics are ubiquitous in healthcare as time-strapped providers prioritize efficiency and expediency over environmental impact. The mounting pile of plastic waste suggests this may not be an effective long-term solution.
One analysis found that 25 percent of healthcare waste is plastic, with a single procedure producing up to 20 pounds of waste, which is mostly plastic.
As providers strive to balance convenience and efficacy, many turn to disposable wipes to quickly clean and disinfect surfaces. These wipes, which are made of plastic fibers, quickly become microplastics that harm the planet and human health.
One 2022 study concluded that, “Microplastic fiber pollution is a huge environmental issue, and how to prevent a large number of discarded wipes and masks from entering the environment and how to deal with them are an important issue for all countries and regions in the world.
Additionally, a separate study found that “The manufacturing, delivery, consumption, and disposal of products and services add up to an estimated 60 to 70 percent of the healthcare sector’s global footprint.”
There are many ways that healthcare providers can address this problem. Healthcare providers have adopted reusable scrubs, and are starting to launder personal protective equipment rather than throwing it away after a single use.
Others can look to their operational practices, like cleaning and disinfection solutions and protocols that eschew wipes, to reduce the amount of plastic they consume.
#2 Avoid Toxic Chemicals
Cleaning protocols frequently expose clinical staff and EVS teams to toxic chemicals, including hydrogen acetic acid (AA), hydrogen peroxide (HP), peracetic acid (PAA), bleach, and quats. These chemicals are bad for the environment and bad for people, as exposure can cause respiratory problems and other health challenges.
According to a study by the Respiratory Health Division at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, “exposure to a product containing HP, PAA, and AA contributed to eye and respiratory symptoms reported by hospital cleaning staff at low levels of measured exposure.”
They can also negatively impact the environment. For example, disposal of chlorine-based disinfectants can contaminate waterways, endanger aquatic life, and disrupt ecosystems.
The solution is simple. Avoid toxic chemicals at all costs, understanding that they erode health outcomes and harm the planet during production, use, and disposal. Alternatives like hypochlorous acid (HOCl) can provide better results without the negative impact of toxic chemicals.
#3 Fog to Disinfect
Disinfection is critical in a healthcare setting, and the enormous responsibility takes up a lot of human capital and physical resources.
Rather than relying on environmentally harmful products like single-use wipes and dangerous chemicals to disinfect treatment areas, providers can turn to automated fogging devices. With the right disinfection solution, fogging can reduce costs, elevate efficacy, and effectively mitigate the environmental impact of disinfection.
Using HOCl as a fogging disinfection solution provides robust disinfection that’s more effective than bleach, without the harmful side effects associated with harsh chemicals as it breaks down to H2O and NACL.
#4 Limit Exposure to Treatment Byproducts
Surgical smoke, the byproduct of medical procedures using electrosurgical instruments, lasers, or other devices, contains a combination of various chemicals and toxic substances. These compounds erode indoor air quality and contribute to air pollution and broader environmental challenges.
In July 2023, Ohio became the 13th state to enact surgical smoke evacuation legislation. The law requires hospitals and ambulatory surgery centers to adopt and implement a policy to prevent human exposure to surgical smoke during any planned surgical procedure that is likely to generate surgical smoke.
It’s a reminder that while we often think of the environment as a space outside the immediate healthcare setting, addressing the sector’s environmental impact starts in-house.
Pursuing Healthcare Without Harm Together
As the healthcare industry continues to strive for the best in patient care, it’s clear that sustainability must be a key component of its mission. The alarming fact that the U.S. healthcare sector contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and landfill waste cannot be ignored.
To “do no harm” should also extend to our environment, considering that climate change directly affects public health. Fortunately, providers don’t have to choose between the environment and patient care. These steps allow any healthcare provider to begin improving their environmental footprint now.
Nevoa is here to help. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you enhance patient care and care for the environment.