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Reducing Air Pollution from Health Systems

Utah health system a national model for protecting patients from air pollution

"Where Does Air Pollution Come From?" is our theme for the month of March in our 2019 Year of Air Pollution & Health. To highlight both sources and solutions, we are featuring a series of blogs to highlight successful efforts to reduce pollution from major sources. For our third and final post, we teamed up with Year of Air Pollution & Health partner, Health Care Without Harm, to show how the healthcare industry can reduce its contribution to air pollution. This special guest blog from Intermountain Healthcare highlights its success in reducing air pollution to improve health in the communities they serve.

solar panels

Solar installations at the Supply Chain Center and at Intermountain Park City Hospital.

Air quality in Utah has been consistently recognized as some of the worst in the United States. Because the majority of Utah's population lives in a relatively small area along the Wasatch Front, the effects of human activity—especially vehicle exhaust—are concentrated. Utah's topography also contributes to the creation of winter temperature inversions, which increase the concentration of winter air pollution. Other parts of the state, including the Cache Valley, Eastern Utah and the Uintah Basin, experience increased ozone pollution due to oil and gas production. Wildfire smoke from more frequent wildfires driven by climate change adds another source of dangerous pollutants.

This air pollution contributes to many health problems, including asthma attacks, allergies, pneumonia and heart attacks, and is correlated with an increase in emergency room visits. Children, older adults and people living with asthma or heart disease are especially vulnerable to air pollution. A high proportion of Utah's population is at risk including about 230,000 people in Utah have asthma; 500,000 people who have cardiovascular disease; and the one-third of Utah's population that is either 18 and under or 65 and older.

Intermountain Healthcare, a non-profit health system based in Salt Lake City, believes working to reduce the negative health effects of air pollution is necessary to fulfilling its mission of "helping people live the healthiest lives possible." Recently recognized as the Community Partner of the Year by Utah Clean Air Partnership (UCAIR), Intermountain is a national model for how hospitals and health systems can take action to reduce their own contributions to air pollution, while also educating patients and communities about how they can protect themselves and their loved ones.

Recognizing that healthcare providers have a responsibility to promote an environment that fosters healing and healthy living, Intermountain is committed to reducing its own contributions to air pollution. The system aims to reduce its carbon footprint by increasingly relying on clean energy sources, creating energy-efficient facilities, and transitioning to low-emission vehicles. Current initiatives include solar installations at the Supply Chain Center and at Intermountain Park City Hospital, expanding recycling efforts, making changes to the automotive fleet, and implementing energy efficiency upgrades such as LED lighting and boiler/chiller upgrades. The energy generated annually by solar panels installed at the Supply Chain Center is equivalent to a vehicle not using 4,617 gallons of gas, and Intermountain currently has plans underway to invest in additional solar installations across the system.

Intermountain has made energy efficiency a key strategy for reducing emissions. To reduce energy use in its clinics and hospitals, Intermountain uses benchmarking to show which facilities are running efficiently and which are using more energy than needed and contributing to unnecessary pollution. All of Intermountain's 22 hospitals have been benchmarked and the health system is working toward Energy Star Certifications for all facilities. To date, five Intermountain hospitals as well as their Supply Chain Center are Energy Star Certified.

To reduce pollution from its fleet vehicles, last year Intermountain replaced 18 vehicles for hybrid models, and by 2025, 80 percent of all Intermountain vehicles will be hybrid, low-emission or electric. Intermountain also promotes public transportation, and recently sponsored Free Fare Days to offer the public free rides on buses and trains in Salt Lake City.

Recognizing that healthcare providers have a responsibility to promote an environment that fosters healing and healthy living, Intermountain is committed to reducing its own contributions to air pollution.

Intermountain also prioritizes educating patients and community members about how they can protect themselves and their loved ones from the health threats of air pollution, and has developed a Care Process Model (CPM) to educate healthcare providers about the health risks of air pollution, and help counsel patients about reducing those risks when outdoor air quality is poor. The model includes fact sheets for specific patient populations, including pregnant women, children and adults living with asthma, adults with heart disease among others, and provides critical information about specific actions individuals and families can take to reduce their risk.

Air pollution both contributes to and is a consequence of climate change. The burning of fossil fuels to power our homes, businesses, and automobiles generates harmful pollution and, in turn, warmer average temperatures contributes to worsening air quality. For this reason, Intermountain has made a commitment to advancing climate solutions as a member of the Health Care Climate Council, a national leadership body of 19 health systems committed to protecting their patients and employees from the health impacts of climate change and becoming anchors for resilient communities. This will also be the fifth year that Intermountain has partnered with the Salt Lake County Health Department to co-host a Climate and Health Symposium with the goal of educating healthcare providers and community leaders about the health effects of climate change.

Intermountain Healthcare has made incredible progress toward promoting cleaner air in Utah, but we still have a long way to go if we are to protect all families and communities from dangerous air pollution. The example of Intermountain shows how hospitals and health systems across the country can extend their healing mission into the communities they serve by reducing their own contributions to air pollution.

Steven Bergstrom is Director, Office of Sustainability at Intermountain Healthcare and Supply Chain Center and Liz Joy, M.D., MPH is Medical Director for Community Health at Intermountain Healthcare.

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Related Topics: Healthy Air, Health & Wellness,


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