By Kenzie Criswell
The connection between the climate crisis and its impact on public health is undeniable. The rise in forest fires and decrease in air quality can be seen without measuring particulate matter. Most summers (and throughout a lengthening wildfire season), the public faces poor air quality conditions, and their health suffers as a result. With July 2023 being the hottest month on the global temperature record and little systemic change to curb the cause of rising temperatures, doctors will be even busier in upcoming years. While treating patients who have been affected by the climate crisis, hospitals may also have a significant environmental impact. These medical centers aren’t exactly gas plants, but their impact is observable.
Oftentimes the biggest advocates for cleaning up the medical industry’s climate impacts come from within a local hospital. Healthcare professionals see the changing climate’s lasting effects in their practice. From treating children facing respiratory problems to performing surgery, doctors and nurses are surrounded by the health impacts of the crisis and have firsthand knowledge about their sector’s contribution to the harm. Luckily, many hospitals across the nation have acknowledged these problems and taken steps to reduce their impact.
Source: Practice Greenhealth
Hospitals contribute to and address the impacts of the climate crisis in various ways. This is certainly true for pediatricians, who treat the most vulnerable people on a daily basis. Drs. Rob and Lori Byron have deep-rooted knowledge of the relationship between climate change and public health. They serve on the Board of Directors of Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate and have worked on the Crow Indian Reservation for decades. Rob is a physician and internist. Lori is a pediatric hospitalist. Together, they co-lead the Citizens Climate Lobby Health Team to spread awareness of the climate crisis to medical professionals.
Montana’s increased wildfires over the past several years have resulted in harmful airborne ash, which is made of damaging particulate matter of different sizes. Rob said this is especially dangerous for pregnant women.
“Breathing pristine air, of course, there will still be stillborn and preterm births, but polluted air increases that risk,” Rob said.
Drs. Lori and Rob Byron in Glacier.
But the harm is not limited to developing children. Polluted air also increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes, especially with increasing heat waves. This makes it essential to also focus on preventative action, not just immediate care. With the rising risks from polluted air, the best way to help is to decrease our carbon footprint and try to mitigate the climate crisis.
Dr. Greg Lind, a Missoula anesthesiologist, served as a Montana state senator from 2005-2008. Working alongside MEIC, he helped improve water quality and forest management, and fought against anti-environmental bills. Having a love for science, natural curiosity, and a strong sense of wanting to “help our fellow humans,” he pursued medicine to help others in the hospital. Once he started working as a medical provider, he realized how important it was to also increase public awareness of the link between the climate and healthcare.
Greg said he worked at a hospital that used the anesthetic, nitrous oxide (N2O), a gas with 265 times more warming potential than carbon dioxide. N2O is a gas used to relieve pain and was commonly used during surgery. After use, the gas was vented to the atmosphere The hospital realized that the pipes that carried the N2O were leaking, putting health professionals, patients, and other people in the building at risk for nausea, disorientation, and impaired memory. To fix this problem, Greg and other professionals started using individual N2O tanks instead of piping in the walls. This allowed them to use only what was necessary for the procedure. This decreased the amount of N2O consumed and consequently decreased vented gas. The transition also dramatically lowered costs due to leaks.
Rob said another common anesthetic, desflurane, is a potent greenhouse gas and carries 2,540 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. Luckily, this anesthetic can be extracted after surgery and reused rather than vented. A hospital in Portland, Oregon, saved $1 million in just one year by using less gas and collecting salvageable gas, rather than disposing of it as waste.
Being surrounded by both the consequences of climate change and quick solutions to make a significant impact, medical professionals quickly become powerful messengers in addressing the changing climate. Rob said physicians, nurses, and pharmacists are the most respected messengers. Acknowledging the devastating implications on health can help the public and hospitals work together to begin finding solutions.
“We all care about our health or that of our children and families,” Rob said.
While there is no right answer for how hospitals should reduce waste and tackle climate impacts, renewable energy and healthier alternatives that allow professionals to get the materials they need to help patients and keep staff safe, are an important first step.
Dr. Greg Lind
This article was published in the September 2023 issue of Down To Earth.