Environmental Impacts of the U.S. Health Care System and Effects on Public Health

PLoS One. 2016 Jun 9;11(6):e0157014. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0157014. eCollection 2016.


The U.S. health care sector is highly interconnected with industrial activities that emit much of the nation's pollution to air, water, and soils. We estimate emissions directly and indirectly attributable to the health care sector, and potential harmful effects on public health. Negative environmental and public health outcomes were estimated through economic input-output life cycle assessment (EIOLCA) modeling using National Health Expenditures (NHE) for the decade 2003-2013 and compared to national totals. In 2013, the health care sector was also responsible for significant fractions of national air pollution emissions and impacts, including acid rain (12%), greenhouse gas emissions (10%), smog formation (10%) criteria air pollutants (9%), stratospheric ozone depletion (1%), and carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic air toxics (1-2%). The largest contributors to impacts are discussed from both the supply side (EIOLCA economic sectors) and demand side (NHE categories), as are trends over the study period. Health damages from these pollutants are estimated at 470,000 DALYs lost from pollution-related disease, or 405,000 DALYs when adjusted for recent shifts in power generation sector emissions. These indirect health burdens are commensurate with the 44,000-98,000 people who die in hospitals each year in the U.S. as a result of preventable medical errors, but are currently not attributed to our health system. Concerted efforts to improve environmental performance of health care could reduce expenditures directly through waste reduction and energy savings, and indirectly through reducing pollution burden on public health, and ought to be included in efforts to improve health care quality and safety.

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants / analysis*
  • Delivery of Health Care*
  • Environment*
  • Environmental Exposure / analysis*
  • Environmental Monitoring*
  • Humans
  • Industrial Waste / analysis*
  • Public Health
  • Risk Assessment
  • United States


  • Air Pollutants
  • Industrial Waste

Grants and funding

MJE received no specific funding for this work. JS was supported by the Anesthesia Patient Safety Foundation, awarded in 2015. The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.