When Nemo is snatched away from his father in the beginning scenes of Finding Nemo, we assume the “bad guys” represent companies that over-exploit aquatic animals for dentist office aquariums. But what if these big fisher companies aren’t the only bad guys disrupting oceanic life. What if there are others – people you’d least expect. Health-care systems. Wait, but how? It’s true that hospitals and health care facilities provide immense benefit to society by saving lives every day. But the energy and supplies it takes to run a fully functioning hospital creates a substantial amount of biomedical waste and air pollution that generally goes overlooked. So although the sole purpose of the healthcare system is to heal people, it ironically poses detrimental public health and environmental risks which are outlined in Matthew J. Eckelman and Jodi Sherman’s article, “Environmental Impacts of the U.S. Health Care System and Effects on Public Health” published this past June in the Public Library of Science (PLOS One).
For quite some time scientists have largely accepted that global warming is real and the Earth’s climate is noticeably increasing. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the primary source of global warming, are still released relentlessly into the atmosphere. According to the U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report: 1990-2014 by the EPA, fossil fuel burning released 6,870 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents in 2014, an increase from 2013. But we’ve had envrionmental facts and statistics like this thrown at us time and time again; what most people don’t expect is that significant culprits of this crime are healthcare systems.
Eckelman and Sherman’s data suggest that healthcare systems are responsible for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions, and this figure continues to rise. The health care sector’s waste additionally contributes to 12% of acid rain, 10% of smog formation, and 1% of ozone depletion. As reported in the World Health Organization Health-care Waste Fact Sheet, 15% percent of the biomedical waste produced is hazardous, infectious, and toxic material. Every year 16 billion injections are administered worldwide, and a noteworthy portion of these needles aren’t disposed of carefully.
“Medical Waste” by wonderferret (Flikr CC user), licensed under CC 2.0
Harmful chemicals and microorganisms find their way to our oceans which disrupt marine ecosystems. Aquatic animals are exposed to these toxic and even radioactive wastes which puts many of these species in danger and further accelerates the current biodiversity crisis. According to Jonathan Payne and Andrew Bush’s article, “Ecological Selectivity of the Emerging Mass Extinction in the Oceans,” from Science earlier in September, this current mass extinction could approach or exceed the magnitude of the five major extinctions over the past 550 million years. If healthcare systems continue these trends, Marlin will never be able to find Nemo. Or any of his friends, for that matter.
Eckelman and Sherman state that “the healthcare sector is interconnected with and supported by industrial activates that emit much of the pollution to the air, water, and soils nationally.” Many fish consume this polluted water which then get eaten by bigger animals, including humans. Terrestrial animals and ecosystems are also affected by pollution and greenhouse gas emissions via climate change. For example, polar bears are already considered endangered species because of the increasing climate of their habitat.
To be clear, the point being made is not that healthcare systems are monsters with an overarching goal to dismantle the earth’s ecosystems. And yes, most hospitals have implemented departments that work to prevent the accretion and incorrect disposal of biomedical waste. But as the figures presented in Eckelman and Sherman’s research demonstrate, the amount of pollution created by these US healthcare systems is still steadily increasing with little improvement.
Great, so how can health care facilities fix this? When the new Fitbit device for tracking steps came out, many hospitals encouraged their workers to join staff competitions in which participants who walked the most steps were rewarded with gift cards or an extra vacation day. These same mechanisms that promote healthy habits can be utilized to promote more diligent disposal of biomedical waste. Different departments within the hospital could compete with their team to minimize waste for a desirable reward.
No matter how many solutions we come up with, the hard part is actually implementing these programs in hospitals across the nation. But if we don’t, we idly sit by as healthcare systems contribute to global warming, endanger a multitude of ecosystems and worsen the biodiversity crisis. The loss of one individual species may have few environmental repercussions, but if enough ties between living creatures are broken, entire ecosystems could begin to fail. The balance of nature will be offset, potentially putting the survival of even humans at risk. It’s time to start playing good doc.
Eckelman, M. J., & Sherman, J. (2016, June 09). Environmental Impacts of the U.S. Health Care System and Effects on Public Health. PLoS ONE, 11(6). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0157014
Health-care waste. (n.d.). Retrieved September 01, 2016, from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs253/en/
Payne, J. L., Bush, A. M., Heim, N. A., Knope M. L., & Mccauley, D. J. (2016, Sept 14). Ecological sensitivity of the emerging mass extinction in the oceans. Science, 353(3605), 1284-1286. doi:10.1126/science.aaf2416
U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report: 1990-2014. (n.d.). Retrieved September 02, 2016, from https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/us-greenhouse-gas-inventory-report-1990-2014