If the U.S. healthcare system were a country, it would rank 13th in the world for greenhouse gas emissions, according to new research. The study, published June 9 in PLOS ONE, quantified previously unreported environmental and public health impacts of the nation’s healthcare sector.
The U.S. healthcare system, the most expensive in the world, uses vast amounts of energy in the form of heating, electricity, and energy-intensive goods and services. It has been estimated that the healthcare sector contributes 8% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Yet emissions of other pollutants from the healthcare sector, and their impact on the public health, have not been reported.
To investigate the impacts, Yale’s Jodi Sherman, M.D. and first author Matthew Eckelman of Northeastern University first used an economic model based on federal data to calculate total emissions of different pollutants produced by the healthcare sector over a 10-year period, drawing on national health expenditure data. They analyzed direct emissions from hospitals and clinician’s offices, as well as indirect emissions generated by the sector’s suppliers of energy, goods, and services.
The researchers then linked the healthcare-related emissions to specific environmental and health outcomes, including global warming; ozone depletion; respiratory disease from air pollutants; cancer from chemical exposure; and the environmental effects of acid rain, among others.