Healthcare Sector Accounts for 8% of U.S. Carbon Footprint

by | Nov 11, 2009

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UnivofChicagoMedCenterThe U.S. healthcare sector accounts for nearly a tenth of the country’s carbon-dioxide emissions, according to University of Chicago researchers. The research takes into account activities such as hospital care, scientific research and the production and distribution of pharmaceutical drugs. The study shows that the healthcare sector produces 8 percent of the country’s total carbon-dioxide output despite accounting for 16 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. The report was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Claimed as a first-of-its-kind calculation of the U.S. healthcare’s carbon footprint, University of Chicago researchers used expenditures from different parts of the health-care sector to measure the industry’s potential impact on global warming through the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Jeanette Chung, PhD, a Research Associate in the Section of Hospital Medicine at the University of Chicago and the study’s lead author, says she hopes the study will draw the attention of the healthcare industry to its environmental impact.

Researchers calculated the carbon footprint using 2007 healthcare spending and a model of environmental impact, called the environmental input-output life cycle assessment (EIOLCA) model, developed by the Green Design Institute at Carnegie-Mellon University.

The study assessed direct environmental effects of healthcare activities as well as indirect effects capturing emissions generated in the production and distribution of commodities used by the healthcare sector, say researchers. The EIOLCA model was applied to estimate the carbon intensity of each dollar of commodity produced by the healthcare industry, based on emissions of various greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons.

The analysis found that hospitals were by far the largest contributor of carbon emissions, which the researchers attributed to the high energy demands needed for temperature control, ventilation and lighting in large hospital buildings.

The study also revealed that the second largest healthcare contributor to the overall carbon footprint was the pharmaceutical industry. Study co-author David Meltzer, MD, PhD, Chief of the Section of Hospital Medicine, Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine, the Harris School of Public Policy and the Department of Economics, attributes this finding to the high costs of manufacturing and researching drugs combined with transportation costs associated with distribution.

Researchers recommended several measures such as creating recycling programs and purchasing goods and services from environmentally-friendly suppliers as ways hospitals can improve energy efficiency.

As an example, cited by researchers, the University of Chicago Medical Center has implemented a plastic recycling program that diverts more than 500 pounds of waste each day from landfills to recycling plants and has a program in place that ensures 90 percent of cleaning supplies used by the hospital have Green Seal certification, according to the paper. These efforts have reduced waste costs at the Medical Center from $55,000 to $35,000 per month, according to the medical center.

The Medical Center is currently working to attain LEED Silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for the New Hospital Pavilion, scheduled to open in 2012.

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