The Medical Sector’s Impact on Climate Change

By Anna Subbanna

The COVID-19 situation has hit many sectors and communities hard, but the healthcare industry has taken the worst hit. As hospitals go into overdrive, there is a lot more production and disposal of medical equipment, which has a significant impact on climate change. According to the CDC, climate change indirectly results in a myriad of medical problems, such as “increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease, injuries and premature deaths related to extreme weather events.” The logical conclusion to derive is that slowing climate change is the most beneficial for the health of everyone. Ironically, just the US healthcare sector alone “accounts for nearly 1/10th of US greenhouse gas emissions” (New England Journal of Medicine) and if considered as a country, it would rank seventh in the world for number of emissions produced. 

Where Are The Emissions Coming From?

As one can assume, running a hospital requires large amounts of energy, energy that is commonly sourced from coal-burning power plants. However, this is true for all businesses, so what makes the healthcare sector such a big polluter? To ensure that each patient remains safe when being treated, it is a policy that most medical instruments and tools are single-use, such as PPE, needles, cotton swabs. Since most of these items interact with blood or other potentially infectious material (OPIM), they are deemed to be hazardous and thus must go through a special medical-waste disposal process. Most states opt to incinerate their medical waste. This incineration process contributes to the industry’s large carbon emissions and also releases other potentially harmful air pollutants. However, this incineration process is not the only way the healthcare industry can worsen climate change. Medical waste that is not harmful enough to go through the incineration process is treated and then shipped to a “sanitary landfill.” Sanitary landfills are solely for hazardous waste, such as treated medical waste. If not sealed properly, the toxins and leftover chemicals in the waste can leak into the groundwater and pollute nearby water bodies. 

What Can Be Changed?

Hospitals can lean towards using renewable and alternative energy sources, following the lead of institutions like Kaiser Permanente. Rather than relying on coal-burning power plants, they can turn to wind energy, solar power, or even utilize excess methane that is released from landfills. Additionally, some materials such as gauze can be recycled rather than incinerated, so hospitals can work towards ensuring the recycling of materials occurs. The healthcare industry must make an initiative to move towards being carbon-neutral and reduce its overall carbon emissions for a better future.