In 2009, the Lancet called climate change the biggest global health threat of the 21st century, the effects of which will be experienced in our lifetimes.1 Significant amounts of data have demonstrated the negative health effects of heat, air pollution, and exposure to toxic substances.2,3 These effects have been seen in every geographic region of the United States, and in multiple organ systems and specialties, including obstetrics, pediatrics, and even cardiopulmonary and bariatric surgery.2-5
Although it does not receive the scrutiny of other industries, the global health care industry accounts for almost double the amount of carbon emissions as global aviation, and the United States accounts for 27% of this footprint despite only having 4% of the world’s population.6 It therefore serves that our own industry is an excellent target for reducing the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. Consider the climate impact of hysterectomy, the second-most common surgery that women undergo. In this article, we will use the example of a 50-year-old woman with fibroids who plans to undergo definitive treatment via total laparoscopic hysterectomy (TLH).
Climate impact of US health care
Hospital buildings in the United States are energy intensive, consuming 10% of the energy used in commercial buildings every year, accounting for over $8 billion. Operating rooms (ORs) account for a third of this usage.7 Hospitals also use more water than any other type of commercial building, for necessary actions like cooling, sterilization, and laundry.8 Further, US hospitals generate 14,000 tons of waste per day, with a third of this coming from the ORs. Sadly, up to 15% is food waste, as we are not very good about selecting and proportioning healthy food for our staff and inpatients.6
While health care is utility intensive, the majority of emissions are created through the production, transport, and disposal of goods coming through our supply chain.6 Hospitals are significant consumers of single-use objects, the majority of which are petroleum-derived plastics—accounting for an estimated 71% of emissions coming from the health care sector. Supply chain is the second largest expense in health care, but with current shortages, it is estimated to overtake labor costs by this year. The United States is also the largest consumer of pharmaceuticals worldwide, supporting a $20 billion packaging industry,9 which creates a significant amount of waste.
Climate impact of the OR
Although ORs only account for a small portion of hospital square footage, they account for a significant amount of health care’s carbon footprint through high waste production and excessive consumption of single-use items. Just one surgical procedure in a hospital is estimated to produce about the same amount of waste as a typical family of 4 would in an entire week.10 Furthermore, the majority of these single-use items, including sterile packaging, are sorted inappropriately as regulated medical waste (RMW, “biohazardous” or “red bag” waste) (FIGURE 1a). RMW has significant effects on the environment since it must be incinerated or steam autoclaved prior to transport to the landfill, leading to high amounts of air pollution and energy usage.
We all notice the visible impacts of waste in the OR, but other contributors to carbon emissions are invisible. Energy consumption is a huge contributor to the overall carbon footprint of surgery. Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning [HVAC] is responsible for 52% of hospital energy needs but accounts for 99% of OR energy consumption.11 Despite the large energy requirements of the ORs, they are largely unoccupied in the evenings and on weekends, and thermostats are not adjusted accordingly.
Anesthetic gases are another powerful contributor to greenhouse gas emissions from the OR. Anesthetic gases alone contribute about 25% of the overall carbon footprint of the OR, and US health care emits 660,000 tons of carbon equivalents from anesthetic gas use per year.12 Desflurane is 1,600 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) in its global warming potential followed by isoflurane and sevoflurane;13 this underscores the importance of working with our anesthesia colleagues on the differences between the anesthetic gases they use. Enhanced recovery after surgery recommendations in gynecology already recommend avoiding the use of volatile anesthetic gases in favor of propofol to reduce postoperative nausea and vomiting.14
In the context of a patient undergoing a TLH, the estimated carbon footprint in the United States is about 560 kg of CO2 equivalents—roughly the same as driving 1,563 miles in a gas-powered car.
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