Climate change: First it was cow farts, now it’s the anesthesia they give you in the hospital? (Next thing you know, it will be blamed on vampires!)

Inhaled anesthetics widely used for surgery, particularly the anesthetic desflurane, make a measurable contribution to global warming. In fact, the anesthetics used by a busy hospital contribute as much to global warming as the emissions from hundreds of cars per year. While no one’s suggesting that patients shouldn’t receive needed anesthetics because of the risk of climate change, some simple steps could help to limit their environmental impact.

These inhalant anesthetics undergo very little metabolic change in the body: The gases exhaled by the patient are almost identical to those administered by the anesthetist. Anesthesiologist Susan M. Ryan says that the anesthetics “usually are vented out of the building as medical waste gases. Most of the organic anesthetic gases remain for a long time in the atmosphere where they have the potential to act as greenhouse gases.”

It may seem strange to be concerned about the global warming potential of medically necessary anesthetics, but anesthesia departments have a substantial overall carbon footprint. Depending on the types of anesthetic used, an average midsize hospital has an environmental impact comparable to that of 100 to 1,200 cars per year. Using desflurane for one hour is equivalent to 235 to 470 miles of driving.

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