Why Environmental Changes Are a Growing Public Health Crisis

Sponsored by One Tree Planted

Three years ago in Paris, Dignity Health was privileged to be among the delegations from around the world that came to consensus on how we needed to urgently curb our carbon emission rates or face irreparable harm. Now, as many of those same representatives meet at COP24 in Poland, disaster after disaster have claimed thousands of lives.

In the East, names such as Irma, Harvey, Michael, Matthew and Florence will not soon be forgotten. In the West and California where I live, the Camp, Carr, Mendocino, Cedar, Rush and Rim fires have devastated communities. We cannot ignore any more that the health of our environment and the health of our populations are deeply intertwined and interconnected. As health care providers, we see the direct impact that environmental changes are having on public health through intense and catastrophic weather changes, on allergies, respiratory and infectious diseases, skin cancer and many other aspects of the health of our communities. We need to reframe the climate conversation as a public health conversation — and the COP24 conference in Poland is our best opportunity yet to do so.

The wildfires in California and other parts of the U.S. highlight the impact of environmental changes on the health of our communities. Throughout California and across the country, people are experiencing the effects of the resulting poor air quality as wildfires burn buildings, causing heavy metals to be released into the air and with them, increased risk of various cardiovascular and lung diseases. We tend to only think about those immediately in range of the fire as being at risk. But smoke — filled not just with the particulates of timber, but also of the chemicals from burning structures, homes, cars and industry — travels hundreds and hundreds of miles. Scorched Earth disrupts crops, and droughts threaten agriculture and livestock. We are in a global crisis that has no national boundary.

We believe that health care providers have a clear obligation to the environment as part of our mission to care for the people and communities we serve. For more than two decades, Dignity Health has helped change how our industry cares for the planet, and at the recent Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, we joined other organizations in reaffirming commitments to the environment through the “We Are Still In” campaign. The summit, which took place as a preamble to COP24, brought together more than 10,000 leaders from around the world to showcase the actions states and regions, cities, companies, investors and civil society have taken already to reduce their emissions, as well as secure bold commitments to do even more.

Small changes can go a long way for hospitals and other health care providers to simultaneously care for patients and the environment.

Cleaning up their supply chain is a key area where health care providers can significantly impact the environment. Look for non-toxic alternatives for commonly used supplies such as thermometers, blood pressure devices and IV bags. Join individual vendors creating environmentally preferred purchasing programs, like NewGen Surgical’s Small Change, Big Impact EPP that is working to reduce operating room plastic waste. And participate in cooperatives, such as Greenhealth Exchange, which leverages aggregated purchasing power to negotiate competitive pricing for environmentally friendly items.

With some smaller successes under their belts, health care providers can then embark upon larger initiatives, such as making changes to lighting sources, which account for 43 percent of all health care electricity usage. As hospitals plan their ongoing upgrades, they look at ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while conserving energy consumption and increasing use of renewable energy. This might include installing solar arrays or optimizing facility airflow by upgrading ventilation systems.

Hospitals share a responsibility to protect our patients and help our communities live healthier lives, so we must address environmental changes head-on by instituting more environmentally friendly practices. If I have learned anything through our efforts to make our facilities more sustainable, it’s that a series of achievable steps guided by a long-term vision and commitment will make accomplishing this priority possible. It was our shared vision that led Dignity Health to divest our investments from thermal coal, and we were the first health system to do so.

While our individual efforts may yield varying outcomes, together we can make a substantial difference to advance environmental health that will ultimately benefit our patients, our staff and our communities.

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