Reducing the climate impacts of anaesthetics

Today is World Anaesthesia Day, which commemorates the first time that the use of ether anesthesia for surgery was publicly and successfully demonstrated in 1846. If you have ever had surgery, you were likely very grateful that anaesthetics were provided – the benefits of such gases are obvious and well known.

Most people are not aware that anaesthetic gases, when released to the atmosphere, are potent greenhouse gases (GHG) with a climate impact up to 2,540 times that of carbon dioxide.

Reducing the climate impacts of anaesthetics

The atmospheric lifetime and global warming potential of the various inhaled anaesthetic gases used in Ontario. Source: Vollmer et al. 2015

As noted in our 2017 Climate Change Progress Report, the provincial government does not collect and publish data on how many of these gases are used by Ontario health care facilities. According to our estimates, these facilities may release the equivalent of about 116,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide in anaesthetic gases every year. This a big deal, but it is not a difficult problem to fix.

First of all, the most GHG-intensive anaesthetics are fairly easy to avoid, as effective and less GHG-intensive substitutes are readily available (see chart above). Secondly, these gases are relatively cheap to capture and even recycle; Ontario companies have been leaders in developing and demonstrating these technologies (see examples here and here).

For a very brief time, waste anaesthetic gas projects in Ontario hospitals had been eligible for funding under the cancelled Hospital Energy Efficiency Program, which used money that flowed from the cap and trade program. Nevertheless, to their great credit, some Ontario health care facilities began to capture waste anaesthetic gases even without an obvious economic incentive.

It would be very heartening to see all Ontario health care facilities collectively take a global leadership role in reducing the climate impacts from anaesthetic gases.

Read the ECO’s latest reports on climate change on our website.

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