photo: Artur Bergman/Creative Commons
According to new research done by the University of Copenhagen and NASA, the anesthetic gases used during surgery have huge global warming potential, but yet there is no obligation to report them--nor seeming awareness about them on the part of the general public. In fact, in total these anesthetics cause as much warming as one million cars.The study found that different anesthetic gases have differing warming potential, with the worst being 1620 times more powerful than CO2. The mildest one has 210 times the warming potential, and the third gas tested warmed the atmosphere 510 times more than CO2, by weight. The researchers note that while the amount of gas used in each individual surgery is small, the combined impact is significant.
Professor Ole John Nielsen, who led the analysis, says,
This ought to make anesthesiologists sit up and take notice. If all three compounds have equal therapeutic worth, there is every reason to choose the one with the lowest warming potential.
Read more: Science Codex
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Now it'd be easy to leap to the (wrong) conclusion that this is just nitpicking by scientists and that the worth of anesthetic gas in surgery far outweighs the global warming potential of their use. No doubt that millions of lives have been saved with modern anesthetics enabling surgery that simply would have been impossible prior to their introduction.
But going beyond the specifics of what Professor Nielsen advises about choosing the one with the lowest potential warming, this is a perfect teaching example on how we need to increasingly start thinking about resource usage.
Do we want to keep using anesthetics? Yes. Should we use the one with the lowest negative environmental impact? Yes. If it's a trade off between medical practice that harms the environment or personal mobility which harms the environment, which to prioritize? Medicine, every time. There are countless ways of moving people around with lower emissions than cars--with some of the most important, walking and bicycling, have effectively zero emissions--but until a zero emission anesthetic comes along, not discounting the power of acupuncture or other natural anesthetic sources, then it seems the tradeoff to be made is clear.
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