• Why Are Asthma Inhalers Bad for the Environment?

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Why Are Asthma Inhalers Bad for the Environment?

Nov 25 2019

The liquified compressed gas found in inhalers commonly used to treat asthma and other respiratory ailments is as detrimental to the environment as eating meat, according to a new study from the University of Cambridge. A prominent greenhouse gas, the substance found within the inhaler is responsible for approximately 4% of all emissions attributed to the NHS each year.

The authors of the study recommend switching to more environmentally-friendly versions of the inhaler. Instead of using liquified compressed gas, they highlight alternatives in the shape of aqueous mist and dry powder inhalers. Not only would these be kinder on the environment, but they could also incur savings for the NHS as well.

A sizable footprint

It’s commonplace for data monitoring to be used to reduce ill health, but it’s quite unusual that monitoring the emissions from devices used to boost health can also aid in helping the environment. However, that appears to be exactly what has occurred with this study, which was compiled by cross-referencing NHS England prescription information from 2017 with carbon footprint data on inhalers for the same period.

The authors of the study found that roughly 50 million inhalers were distributed that year, with seven out of 10 of those being metered-dose inhalers which contain liquified compressed hydrofluoroalkanes (HFAs). Since the environmental impact of a HFA inhaler is between 10 and 37 times higher than a dry powder alternative, switching to the latter could mean that individual users avoid between 150kg and 400kg of greenhouse gas emissions each year.

That’s roughly comparable to the same emissions savings achieved by leading an eco-conscious lifestyle, such as by recycling, installing wall insulation in their home or avoiding meat in their diet. Of course, some meats are worse for the environment than others, but it’s still a staggering statistic that the simple use of an inhaler could be equally as bad as any of them.

The bigger picture

The potential environmental benefits of switching to dry powder inhalers become even more pronounced when viewed on a larger scale. Indeed, replacing just 10% of traditional inhalers with their eco-friendlier equivalents could bring down greenhouse gas emissions by a whopping 58,000 tonnes. For context, that’s about the same as would be incurred by 180,000 journeys from London to Edinburgh and back by car.

It’s not just Mother Earth who would benefit, either. While the up-front costs of switching to dry powder inhalers might be a deterrent for the NHS to enact the change, it would pay off handsomely in the long run. Indeed, according to the figures compiled by the research team, replacing that 10% of inhalers with the cheapest available dry powder alternative would lead to a fall in overall drug costs of in excess of £8 million.

However, the authors of the study were quick to point out that their research does not mean asthma sufferers should stop using their devices. “It’s important to stress that patients shouldn’t stop using their usual treatments to reduce their carbon footprint,” explained Dr Alexander Wilkinson of NHS North Hertfordshire. “Instead we recommend patients review their condition and treatment at least annually with their healthcare professional and at this point discuss whether a more environmentally-friendly inhaler is available and appropriate in their situation.”


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