It sounds like a plot for a corporate thriller: an industry that poisons people and then profits from selling the antidote. In a sense, though, this could describe health care. As one of the most energy-intense industries – hospitals account for 8% of all US energy use – health care facilities are an important contributor to both air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions. Those pollutants are an important cause of respiratory illness, especially in children. We could, unintentionally, be contributing to adverse health effects for the children in our community. That undermines our values of purpose and health.
Many hospitals, including Children’s, are taking steps to address this. Our hospital actually already compares favorably to others in its energy footprint. This year we will be installing new facility operations software that will further reduce our energy consumption. And the thermal plant on Watertown Plank Road, which provides Children’s and the other facilities on the Milwaukee Regional Medical Campus with steam and chilled water for heating and cooling, is being converted from coal to natural gas, which will decrease both carbon and particulate matter emissions.
The good news is that efforts like these will lead to improved public health. A recent study from the New England Journal of Medicine showed that in southern California over a 13 year period, pollution reductions as a result of regulations under the Clean Air Act were associated with improvements in lung function in children. This affirms findings in other studies showing a link between improvements in air quality and overall life expectancy across the US. Clean air is good.
Other hospitals are going even further. Gundersen Lutheran, in La Crosse, WI, became the first hospital to go carbon neutral, getting all of its energy from wind, geothermal, solar, and other renewable sources. That’s a stretch. But even the steps we are taking will help. And as individuals we can help to reduce the energy intensity of the organization by turning off lights and computers, using stairs, and other small things that will add up to less waste and healthier kids in our community.