Greenhouse gases in sustainable healthcare

Image by Cassie Matias via Unsplash.

My blog posts have been infrequent because I’ve been busy with some cool stuff in recent months. While I can’t yet discuss one of the projects (still in development phase and super-secret), I can talk about what I learned in another. Today we’re going to talk about sustainable healthcare. Specifically, we’re going to talk about anesthesia.

If you’re like me, you probably don’t often think about anesthesia. If you require surgery, you’re more likely to worry about the problem than the anesthesia.

Recently, I learned that only about 5% of the anesthetic agent is metabolized by the patient in normal use. The remaining 95% is vented out into the world; this seems incredibly wasteful. Anesthesiologists can mitigate this waste by using machines and techniques that limit the fresh gas flow.

But what I hadn’t realized was that modern anesthetic agents are potent greenhouse gases. Medically necessary, they’re excluded from environmental agreements. Yet the impact from the anesthesia practice in an average midsize hospital is comparable to that of up to 1,200 cars per year.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, operating under the authority of the United Nations, concluded there’s a better than 95 percent probability that human-produced greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have caused much of the observed increase in Earth’s temperatures over the past 50 years.

Should you find yourself in a situation where you need surgery, ask about the agent that your anesthesiologist chooses to use. A hospital can reduce the environmental impact of surgery by up to 96% by using sevoflurane instead of desflurane. Likewise, avoiding the use of nitrous oxide — which has the global warming potential equal to 265 kg of carbon dioxide — can dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Now that I know, I feel obligated to ask questions and make sustainable choices. My decisions may just be the tip of the iceberg.

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