The Government’s chief medical adviser has called the NHS a “significant polluter” after her annual report revealed the health service creates 590,000 tonnes of waste a year – more than the entire municipal waste from some European countries like Cyprus and Luxembourg.
Professor Dame Sally Davies said healthcare organisations create “huge amounts” of waste and that the NHS, the world’s fifth largest employer, must do more to cut its pollutant footprint
While the report recognises that medical care involves “some pollution”, it adds that the World Health Organisation estimates that 75-90 per cent of waste from healthcare facilities is non-hazardous. The remaining may be infectious or biohazardous and needs to be disposed of in a specific way.
“Everybody has a role to play in cutting pollution but the NHS has more than a million staff, accounts for one in 20 vehicles on the road and is a big user of single-use disposable plastics.”
Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Adviser
The report, published last month, also looks at other aspects of pollution in the NHS including diesel-run ambulances, employee transport, drugs and treatments that are unnecessarily prescribed, and energy expenditure.
Dame Sally wrote: “It is the case that the health service in this country is a significant polluter simply due to its size. There is positive action being taken, some led by NHS Sustainable Development Unit and some led locally by trail-blazing trusts. The health service causes a lot of pollution – it makes sense to strive to reduce this.”
Her recommendations include calling for ambulance trusts to publish annual updates on their progress towards phasing out diesel ambulances, pointing out that South Central Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust is experimenting with photovoltaic cells to keep electrical equipment in ambulances powered, while avoiding idling.
“Innovation and exploration like this should be championed locally and nationally,” Dame Sally said. “Five percent of all road traffic at any one time is estimated to be on NHS business, be it patients going to and from care or the NHS’s fleet of vehicles.
“This will be reduced if the right care is provided in the right place – using models of care with least amount of travel. Taking care to the patient will be part of this, so there is a role for us fulfilling the potential that technology has.”
Campaigners estimate that health impacts of air pollution alone cost around £20bn a year, almost one fifth of the NHS budget, so work to reduce it makes financial and ethical sense. Air pollution is implicated in millions of deaths a year, and cities in Germany and Italy have recently announced bans of diesel vehicles to bring the crisis under control.
Dame Sally also said clinical commissioning groups should analyse local air quality monitoring data for breaches of air pollution standards, and publish these alongside the local hospital data for impacts on admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular disease.
The report said it will not be sufficient to recycle more waste, but called on hospitals to reduce the amount of waste they produced as well as reducing “unnecessary healthcare, and ensure more efficient procurement”.
Dame Sally said: “Everybody has a role to play in cutting pollution but the NHS has more than a million staff, accounts for one in 20 vehicles on the road and is a big user of single-use disposable plastics. Some trusts are already blazing a trail and I urge others to follow.”