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BRIGHTON – The carbon footprint of personal protective equipment (PPE) provided to health and social care staff in England during the first six months of the Covid-19 pandemic was equivalent to flying from London to New York 244 times every day, according to a new study.

The study, by Brighton and Sussex Medical School and the Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust, found that the three billion items of PPE used from February to July last year generated 591 tons of carbon dioxide a day – 27,000 times the average individual’s carbon footprint.

The 1.8 billion gloves used had the biggest environmental impact, followed by aprons, face shields and masks.

The study also suggests ways in which PPE use in the future could lessen environmental impact. This includes reusing gowns and face shields where possible, recycling PPE waste, and the manufacture of PPE in the UK. The biggest impact, meanwhile, could be through reducing the volumes of PPE used, for example using hand washing instead of wearing gloves.

“COVID-19 has impacted many aspects of life,” said Chantelle Rizan, a doctor in the NHS and a research fellow at the Royal College of Surgeons of England. “Ours is the first study to look at the environmental harm of using PPE on such a scale, and the results are concerning.

“However, a combination of strategies could have reduced the carbon footprint by 75%. We are not advocating actions that could increase risk of infection, but guidelines around the use of PPE aren’t always consistent or up to date with the latest science. It may be perfectly safe to wash hands rather than use gloves in many situations, and that is something that needs further exploration.”

“It’s clear the virus will be with us for some time yet, so the need for PPE to keep staff and patients safe is still paramount,” said Professor Neil Mortensen, President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England “But the findings of this new study are sobering, and we must also consider how to reduce the environmental impact of PPE, including making greater use of reusable items or how PPE and other plastic healthcare waste can be recycled – something the college’s Sustainability in Surgery working group is looking at.”

The study was published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

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