Background: Human health is dependent upon environmental health. Air pollution is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality globally, and climate change has been identified as the single greatest public health threat of the 21st century. As a large, resource-intensive sector of the Canadian economy, healthcare itself contributes to pollutant emissions, both directly from facility and vehicle emissions and indirectly through the purchase of emissions-intensive goods and services. Together these are termed life cycle emissions. Here, we estimate the extent of healthcare-associated life cycle emissions as well as the public health damages they cause.
Methods and findings: We use a linked economic-environmental-epidemiological modeling framework to quantify pollutant emissions and their implications for public health, based on Canadian national healthcare expenditures over the period 2009-2015. Expenditures gathered by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) are matched to sectors in a national environmentally extended input-output (EEIO) model to estimate emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and >300 other pollutants. Damages to human health are then calculated using the IMPACT2002+ life cycle impact assessment model, considering uncertainty in the damage factors used. On a life cycle basis, Canada's healthcare system was responsible for 33 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e), or 4.6% of the national total, as well as >200,000 tonnes of other pollutants. We link these emissions to a median estimate of 23,000 disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) lost annually from direct exposures to hazardous pollutants and from environmental changes caused by pollution, with an uncertainty range of 4,500-610,000 DALYs lost annually. A limitation of this national-level study is the use of aggregated data and multiple modeling steps to link healthcare expenditures to emissions to health damages. While informative on a national level, the applicability of these findings to guide decision-making at individual institutions is limited. Uncertainties related to national economic and environmental accounts, model representativeness, and classification of healthcare expenditures are discussed.
Conclusions: Our results for GHG emissions corroborate similar estimates for the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States, with emissions from hospitals and pharmaceuticals being the most significant expenditure categories. Non-GHG emissions are responsible for the majority of health damages, predominantly related to particulate matter (PM). This work can guide efforts by Canadian healthcare professionals toward more sustainable practices.