Gloves masks and gowns: Environmental impacts of health care part of new study by Dalhousie

Caitlin Coombes

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The Guardian

Most products used in Canada’s health-care industry — from plastic cups to gloves to surgical instruments — are single-use items, a fact that contributes to significant emissions.

The vice-chair and director of research at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Dr. Sean Christie, has seen the transition to more single-use products as a neurosurgeon at the Halifax Infirmary.

“It’s a very interesting phenomenon that has evolved over time,” Christie told SaltWire on Nov. 22 when discussing the waste produced by modern health care.

Christie told SaltWire that since he began at the Infirmary the hospital has switched from reusable sterile drapes and gowns in operating rooms to single-use. He noted that this policy change has not decreased the post-operation infection rate.

“Where we can improve somebody’s care we should, but we should try to look at it through a lens of trying to minimize negative effects on the health of the planet,” Christie said.

Christie is one of the researchers and experts involved in a groundbreaking health-care project being conducted at Dalhousie University focusing on the environmental impacts of the health-care system across Canada.

A group of researchers are evaluating the health-care industry’s environmental impacts from cradle to grave.

Daniel Rainham, a professor at Dalhousie University’s school of human health and performance, says probing health industry practices is not without controversy.

“Most Canadians think of the health-care system as part of our identity, so it’s a strong foundational feature of the country,” Rainham said in an interview with SaltWire on Nov. 10.

However, he noted there is little research into this topic in Canada, which makes this study crucial to improving the country’s health-care system’s impacts on the planet.

“Some of the previous studies estimated that 4 to 5 per cent of all Canadian greenhouse gas emissions are from health-care services and delivery, which is equivalent to the aviation sector,” Rainham said.

The project seeks to create a life cycle assessment for a single surgical procedure, with the goal of paving the way for a detailed understanding of the environmental impacts of the health-care system in Canada.

A life cycle assessment is a study of an item’s environmental impact from its creation to its destruction.

By setting this baseline, further estimates will be available for the health-care industry and individual treatment plans as research progresses.

Peter Tyedmers, a professor at Dalhousie’s school for resource and environmental studies who is involved in the life cycle assessment, told SaltWire on Nov. 23 that the research is a part of the battle against climate change.

“How do we understand the role of health-care provisions more generally in terms of climate change, and how do we find ways to make intelligent improvements sooner with very limited data,” Tyedmers said, describing the key questions driving this research.

The Dalhousie research is in the preliminary stages and is focusing on a procedure called a cervical laminectomy.

Through collected data and industry knowledge, the researchers intend to create life cycle assessments of the environmental impact of this single treatment.

As data is collected and research expands, industries across Canada will be able to better understand and improve their environmental effects. “The work that we’re doing is going to show that this stuff does have a climate impact,” Tyedmers said, discussing the physical waste generated by surgeries and the health-care industry.