Anesthetic gases heat climate as much as 1 million cars

Dec 03, 2010
Copenhagen Chemist Ole John Nielsen analyses how various chemical compounds will degrade in the atmosphere. And how they affect climate while they are there. He has revealed that anesthetic gases have a global warming potential more than a thousand times higher than CO2. Credit: Jes Andersen

When doctors want their patients asleep during surgery they gently turn the gas tap. But Anaesthetic gasses have a global warming potential as high as a refrigerant that is on its way to being banned in the EU. Yet there is no obligation to report anaesthetic gasses along with other greenhouse gasses such as CO2, refrigerants and laughing gas.

One kilo of anaesthetic gas affects the climate as much as 1620 kilos of CO2. That has been shown by a recent study carried out by chemists from University of Copenhagen and NASA in collaboration with anaesthesiologists from the University of Michigan Medical School. The amount of gas needed for a single surgical procedure is not high, but each year surgery related affects the climate as much as would one million cars, states a new report in respected medical journal "British Journal of Anaesthesia".

Analyses of the anaesthetics were carried out by Ole John Nielsen, a Professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of Copenhagen. And he's got an important message for doctors.

"We studied three different gasses in regular use for anaesthesia, and they're not equally harmful," explains Professor Nielsen

All three are worse than CO2 but where the mildest ones have global warming potentials of 210 and 510 respectively, the most harmful will cause 1620 times as much global warming as an equal amount of CO2, explains the professor.

"This ought to make anaesthesiologists sit up and take notice. If all three compounds have equal therapeutic worth, there is every reason to choose the one with the lowest global warming potential", says professor Ole John Nielsen.

The three anaesthetic gasses isoflurane, desflurane and sevoflurane were studied at the Ford atmospheric laboratories near Detroit, Michigan. Mads Andersen of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratories collaborated on the analyses with Ole John Nielsen who is his former PhD supervisor. He relates how he got the idea for the study while his wife was giving birth.

"The anaesthesiologist told me, that the gas used is what we chemist know as a halogenated compound. That's the same family of compound as the Freon that was famously eating the ozone layer back in the eighties" says research scientist Mads Andersen.

But the gasses are also related to HFC-134a which is slated to be banned across Europe from January 2011. With a potential some 1.300 times that of CO2, HFC-134a is in the exact same range as the worst of the knock-out gasses. Not that the amounts of anaesthetic used warrant a ban as far as Professor Ole John Nielsen is concerned. But that doesn't mean we should be unconcerned.

"The surprising properties of anaesthetic gasses are an important reminder to anyone using any kind of . They really ought to examine the atmospheric fate of them, before releasing them into nature", says Professor Nielsen.

Explore further: Dead floppy drive: Kenya recycles global e-waste

Provided by University of Copenhagen

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User comments : 11

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geokstr
1 / 5 (4) Dec 03, 2010
This is perfectly in keeping with the recommendation from warmists that we take our economy back to the Stone Age, since they didn't have anaesthetics back then either.
jscroft
5 / 5 (1) Dec 03, 2010
Anaesthetic-free surgery, yay! Even if this WERE a climate-change contributor, couldn't we agree the trade-off works in our favor?
NotAsleep
3 / 5 (2) Dec 03, 2010
I read this as "I talked to an anesthetist this one time and he said he used chemicals A, B and C and I was like 'woah! Greenhouse gas!' "

The amount of sunlight the earth receives is a direct contributor to global warming but you don't see anyone stupid enough to consider decreasing that... oh, wait...
PPihkala
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 03, 2010
If I have understood correctly, patients are wearing a mask that is used to administer these gases. When they exhale, it should be possible to capture the exhaled gases and collect them. Once collected, they could be processed to break these gases to less harmful ones or sent to be treated for recycling etc. I still think that economically the best option is to capture these gases at the point of use, ie at the hospital. Until that happens, doctors should be educated to use the ones that do less harm. By the way, this article could have included the figures for each used gas with clear association.
Canman
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 04, 2010
If an anesthesiologist or hospital were to pay for collection and management of waste gasses, could you imagine what that would do to your surgery bill? I mean, I agree we need to do what we can about greenhouse gas, but, jeez! Its gonna get pricey!
jscroft
1 / 5 (3) Dec 04, 2010
@PPihkala: What about all the CO2 you exhale just walking around? Maybe you ought to capture that, too. Then you can sell it for carbon credits... I understand they're real cheap these days.
JimB135
5 / 5 (3) Dec 04, 2010
If I have understood correctly, patients are wearing a mask that is used to administer these gases. When they exhale, it should be possible to capture the exhaled gases and collect them.


I have a little different spin...

I'm a veterinarian and I use isoflurane on my animal patients every day. No they don't wear a mask they have an endotracheal tube placed into the trachea. The gases (oxygen and a small percentage of isoflurane) are administered by machine and then vented back to the anesthesia machine. Waste gas is vented from the machine to the outside of my hospital. It would not be a big deal to connect the exhaust to some sort of collection device. The big question what kind of device and how much would it cost?
I use gas anesthesia (as opposed to continuous intravenous ) because it is easy to administer, very controllable and therefore very safe for the patient. People really love their pets and want anesthesia to be as safe as possible. Just like a family member.

JimB135
5 / 5 (3) Dec 04, 2010
..cont

But if this is a problem we need to look at it and determine if it can be mitigated in a cost effective way. Even a simple activated carbon filter may be all that is needed.
J Botsford DVM
mongander
3 / 5 (2) Dec 04, 2010
Anaesthetic gasses enable the continued existance of wimpy useless eaters. Humans should tough it out just like Mother Gaea.
Skepticus
not rated yet Dec 06, 2010
It's all well and good if the hospital is a well-funded one in a relatively prosperous country. But the majority of the hospital in poorer countries barely able to have enough essential equipments and medicines, let alone anesthetics gas capture equipment. In theory, it's maybe just a simple suck-all gas collector from the operating room, to be compressed into cylinders and sent back to the anesthetic company for separation and reuse...but "medical equipent" usually carry price tags that make your nose bleed, simple machinery or not.
Skepticus
1 / 5 (2) Dec 07, 2010
Anaesthetic gasses enable the continued existance of wimpy useless eaters. Humans should tough it out just like Mother Gaea.

Whoa, I didn't know superhuman immortal exists! Wishing you all the best of luck and fun next time you are having your teeth pulled out, (or if you are in the military), having the shrapnels pulled and scraped out of your guts and bones without anesthestics...or explaining to your kids about going to surgery that only wimps needs anesthetics, and those such need not to be alive!