Quantification of the environmental impact of radiotherapy and associated secondary human health effects: a multi-institutional retrospective analysis and simulation

Katie E. Lichter, Kiley Charbonneau, Jacqueline R. Lewy, Julie R. Bloom, Rachel Shenker, Ali Sabbagh, Junzo Chino, Anna Rodrigues, Jason Hearn, Surbhi Grover, Ren Dih Sheu, Alon Witztum, Muhammad Mustafa Qureshi, Sue S. Yom, Chirjiv Anand, Cassandra L. Thiel, Osama Mohamad

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: The health-care industry is a substantial contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, yet the specific environmental impact of radiotherapy, a cornerstone of cancer treatment, remains under-explored. We aimed to quantify the emissions associated with the delivery of radiotherapy in the USA and propose a framework for reducing the environmental impact of oncology care. Methods: In this multi-institutional retrospective analysis and simulation study, we conducted a lifecycle assessment of external beam radiotherapy (EBRT) for ten anatomical disease sites, adhering to the International Organization for Standardization's standards ISO 14040 and ISO 14044. We analysed retrospective data from Jan 1, 2017, to Oct 1, 2023, encompassing patient and staff travel, medical supplies, and equipment and building energy use associated with the use of EBRT at four academic institutions in the USA. The primary objective was to measure the environmental impacts across ten categories: greenhouse gases (expressed as kg of carbon dioxide equivalents [CO2e]), ozone depletion, smog formation, acidification, eutrophication, carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic potential, respiratory effects, fossil fuel depletion, and ecotoxicity. Human health effects secondary to these environmental impacts were also estimated as disability-adjusted life years. We also assessed the potential benefits of hypofractionated regimens for breast and genitourinary (ie, prostate and bladder) cancers on US greenhouse gas emissions using an analytic model based on the 2014 US National Cancer Database for fractionation patterns and patient commute distances. Findings: We estimated that the mean greenhouse gas emissions associated with a standard 25-fraction EBRT course were 4310 kg CO2e (SD 2910), which corresponded to 0·0035 disability-adjusted life years per treatment course. Transit and building energy usage accounted for 25·73% (1110 kg CO2e) and 73·95% of (3190 kg CO2e) of total greenhouse gas emissions, respectively, whereas supplies contributed only 0·32% (14 kg CO2e). Across the other environmental impact categories, most of the environmental impact also stemmed from patient transit and energy use within facilities, with little environmental impact contributed by supplies used. Hypofractionated treatment simulations suggested a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions—by up to 42% for breast and 77% for genitourinary cancer—and environmental impacts more broadly. Interpretation: This comprehensive lifecycle assessment of EBRT delineates the environmental and secondary health impacts of radiotherapy, and underscores the urgent need for sustainable practices in oncology. The findings serve as a reference for future decarbonisation efforts in cancer care and show the potential environmental benefits of modifying treatment protocols (when clinical equipoise exists). They also highlight strategic opportunities to mitigate the ecological footprint in an era of escalating climate change and increasing cancer prevalence. Funding: Mount Zion Health Fund.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)790-801
Number of pages12
JournalThe Lancet Oncology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2024

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology


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