Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Catholic Health Care Industry Confronts Its Own Carbon Footprint

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Catholic Health Care Industry Confronts Its Own Carbon Footprint

Article excerpt

For several days in August, a gray pall of smoke and ash blanketed the skies of Seattle. The haze came from all sides: wildfires to the south in Oregon and Northern California, wildfires to the east beyond the Cascades, wildfires to the north in Canada's British Columbia.

The well-traveled smoke plummeted air quality and also led to an upsurge in trips to the Providence St. Joseph emergency room.

"There was just ash raining down like snow at some points," said Richard Beam, the Catholic hospital system's chief environmental officer. "And so we were having an increase of people coming to us with asthma and other lung-associated illnesses."

More and more, Catholic and other health care providers are recognizing how the effects of climate change are harming human health and will only worsen as the planet warms.

But as the medical community examines its response to climate change, a discomfiting realization has become apparent: They're part of the problem.

While hospitals play a pivotal role in treating patients and communities dealing with health issues developing from the fallout of rising temperatures, they also represent one of the largest sources of the air pollutants warming the planet.

A 2016 study found the U.S. health care industry as a whole accounts for roughly 10% of the nation's total greenhouse gas emissions. It is also the seventh-largest carbon emitter globally A separate 2016 analysis from the U.S. Energy Information Administration found hospitals behind only the food service industry in terms of energy consumption from buildings.

"Health care has a mission to first do no harm. And here we have a sector that nevertheless has a tremendous carbon footprint, that is contributing to climate change and also to air pollution," said Sarah Spengeman, an associate director of the U.S. climate and health program for Health Care Without Harm, a nongovernmental organization that works with hospitals worldwide to implement sustainable and environmentally friendly initiatives.

A bedrock issue

Though the wildfires in some cases burned hundreds of miles away from the Puget Sound, the intensity was so great that the smoke that drifted to Seattle dropped the city's air quality to unhealthy levels--the equivalent of smoking seven cigarettes a day--and to worse than in Beijing, the Chinese capital with the ignominious title as home to some of the worst smog and air pollution in the world.

Wildfire smoke can cause coughing, stinging eyes, headaches, irritated sinuses and shortness of breath. In more severe cases, the particulates it puts into the air can exacerbate the risk of asthma attacks along with numerous pulmonary and cardiovascular issues, including heart attacks, pulmonary embolisms and strokes.

"Wildfires are creating a public health crisis that is growing in severity as the number, size and frequency of wildfires increase," wrote Lloyd Dean, president and CEO of Dignity Health, in an August op-ed for the journal Health Affairs. "For me, this is yet another indication that the health of our environment is closely linked to the health of our communities."

Groups like Health Care Without Harm and Catholic Health Association have worked to educate its member hospitals on the relationship between climate change and health, and to encourage them to take steps to minimize their own carbon footprints.

For Catholic hospitals, such action stems from their moral tradition, said Julie Trocchio, CHA senior director for community benefit and continuing care, and a recognition that climate impacts are often most felt by the poor and vulnerable communities--a population already prominent on the radar of health care providers.

"When we say it's a moral issue, we're particularly concerned about the poor," she told NCR. "And that is certainly one of the bedrock issues for Catholic health care, a special concern for vulnerable people. …

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