What are the global environmental impacts of healthcare?

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

An Australian-led, multi-regional study has found that the healthcare sector causes up to 5% of total global environmental damage, placing it alongside other major global contributors to climate change.

The study, published in the journal, The Lancet Planetary Health, is the first global assessment of environmental harms from healthcare, that in turn put human health at risk.

Using a global supply-chain database containing detailed information on healthcare 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% and 5% of total global impacts, and more than 5% 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.”

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.”

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