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Innovative Service at Mass General Brigham Encourages Research Labs to Embrace Sustainability

Ann-Christine Duhaime, MD

Greening the Lab, a unique collaborative effort that originated at Massachusetts General Hospital, has become a system-wide effort to increase the environmental sustainability of healthcare across Mass General Brigham.

While it may not be the biggest cause of climate change, healthcare contributes to about 10% of the greenhouse gases in the United States and 5% of the greenhouse gases globally, says Ann-Christine Duhaime, MD, a physician-investigator in the Department of Neurosurgery at Mass General and Associate Director (Research and Publications) for the Center for the Environment and Health at Mass General.

In this Q&A, Dr. Duhaime talks about ways that healthcare providers can reduce their environmental impact and why laboratories at MGB should consider the center’s Greening Your Lab consultation service.

Q: Could you tell us about the “Greening Your Lab” initiative and why it’s so important?

The leadership at Mass General Brigham, as well as its affiliated hospitals, are increasingly (and appropriately) concerned about the issue of climate change.

In fact, Mass General Brigham joined a pledge that was signed at the White House to reduce the carbon footprint of the healthcare sector. We all must work together to fulfill this commitment.

Each hospital, as well as the system, is doing its part. Here at Massachusetts General Hospital, we started the Center for the Environment and Health in 2021. We have four important pillars that help guide the mission of the center.

The four pillars are: operations; advocacy and outreach; education and engagement; and research and publications.

Q: How does “Greening Your Lab” work?

The Greening Your Lab initiative offers members of the Mass General Brigham research community a customized consultation to identify ways they can reduce the environmental impact of their labs and research processes.

The Center has created a tip sheet with general approaches to decreasing the environmental footprint of research, including minimizing energy/carbon emissions, toxic chemicals, water, and solid waste. That sheet is available online to help any lab get started. However, because of the wide variety of types of biomedical research done at Mass General Brigham, we realized that to have the most impactful outcomes, we needed to partner with an external group with specific expertise in laboratory sustainability. For this reason we chose to assess the My Green Lab Certification Program in Laboratory Sustainability. We are studying the environmental and cost impacts of this program as well as its acceptability to researchers. Preliminary results suggest this is a cost-effective approach that can be customized to different types of labs, improves sustainability metrics, and generally is embraced by researchers.

Q: Can you expand a little on your role within the Center for the Environment and Health for Research and Publications?

Part of my job that is to help with the sustainability of research labs in partnership with the Mass General Research Labs.

The other part that falls under research is to help anyone (from bench researchers to clinicians, employees and administrators) who are interesting in doing research that is relevant to climate change and health.

Q: Can you give some examples of unsustainable practices within healthcare?

Interestingly, when people think about greening anything in healthcare, the first thing many think about is solid waste. This is important, and we are working on ways to reduce this, both by alternatives in purchasing and in reusing rather than disposing wherever possible.

However, it turns out that 60-70% of our impact comes not from what takes place on site, but from areas of the supply chain that can be influenced through more collective action.

Researchers do have control over some of their on-site processes, however. For instance, many laboratories are equipped with minus 80-degree freezers. Turning your freezer from minus 80 to minus 70 can lead to considerable energy savings. As scientists, we wanted to measure the energy savings directly, which we have done. And researchers of course prioritize the quality of their science. Some researchers were worried that by going from minus 80 to minus 70, some of their specimens would be degraded. To address this concern, we spun off a second phase of this pilot study, where researchers have agreed to freeze their samples at minus 80 and at minus 70, then compare sample quality to see if there are any negative consequences due to the 10-degree difference in storage temperatures.

We suspect this difference is not significant and we hope this part of the study will provide peer-reviewed data for researchers to weigh as they consider this option.

Researchers tend to throw out most things as regulated medical waste to make sure nothing bad goes into the regular trash, but we found that different labs had different processes for throwing things out, which suggested a knowledge gap.

Ann-Christine Duhaime, MD
Massachusetts General Hospital

Q: What comes next?

Regulated medical waste is, environmentally and cost-wise, considerably worse than municipal waste.

After talking to the researchers, we realized that the trash and waste rules they were following were inconsistent. Who makes the rules about trash, and to whom do they apply? Who is responsible for updating the rules, if they become outdated as research methods evolve? When we did the waste audits, we found that a lot of what being thrown out as regulated medical waste did not seem as dangerous as that label implies.

Researchers tend to throw out most things as regulated medical waste to make sure nothing bad goes into the regular trash, but we found that different labs had different processes for throwing things out, which suggested a knowledge gap.

To address this gap, we received approval to host a Mass General Brigham-wide Waste Summit scheduled for May 15th that will provide a crucial opportunity to enhance researchers’ and some clinicians’ understanding of proper waste and trash handling and, where possible, to improve our processes for safety, cost, and sustainability goals. In each of these ways we are attempting to incorporate sustainability into all our processes, to decrease our pollution and environmental impact for the health of our employees, patients, and communities.