Is it possible to provide health care without causing harm to the environment? | Suely Carvalho

07 Apr 2013

Is it possible to provide health care without causing harm to the environment? World Health Day 2013 reminds us that 12 percent of all deaths globally are due to high blood pressure. For centuries, doctors did not have a good way to monitor blood pressure until the introduction of mercury blood pressure meters in the early 1900s. 

This advance in health care, however, has had a negative side. Every year, tonnes of toxic mercury from broken blood pressure meters are released from hospitals into the environment, causing serious harm to human health.

A similar dilemma arises with infectious waste, a necessary byproduct of medical care. Single-use plastic syringes and disposable products prevent the transfer of infections among patients but increase the quantity of waste produced. Dumping untreated waste contributes to the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, while burning the waste in incinerators emits hazardous pollutants including highly toxic and persistent dioxins.

Is it possible to provide health care without causing harm? The experience of King George’s Medical University (KGMU), a hospital for the poor in India, shows that it is. In 2009, the hospital generated 2.5 tonnes of infectious waste per day. Waste was dumped on the floor, collected by sweepers, mixed with regular waste and broken mercury devices, and transported in leaking carts to open dumpsites or burned in an old incinerator.

Today, through a project implemented by UNDP with funding from the Global Environment Facility, and supported by the World Health Organization and the international NGO, Healthcare Without Harm, KGMU has a healthcare waste management system that is a model for developing countries. Waste is segregated in color-coded bins, transported in sealed trolleys by trained workers, tracked using a bar-code system, and sterilized in locally-made steam treatment units called autoclaves.

Sterilized glass and plastics are then shredded and sold to recyclers which help reduce the impact on landfills and generate revenue. In three years, the hospital reduced its infectious waste by 80 percent. KGMU also established a system for safely managing mercury waste and mercury devices are now being replaced with mercury-free alternatives.

Under this project, Argentina, Latvia, Lebanon, Philippines, Senegal and Viet Nam are already implementing this model, demonstrating that the synergy between health care and environmental sustainability can result in overall reduction in harm to health and the environment.  In addition, this model will be replicated in another recently approved UNDP-GEF project in regional Africa involving four countries (Ghana, Madagascar, Tanzania and Zambia).

Talk to us: How can we link health care and environmental sustainability as we move to the next era of development?

UNDP Around the world