Experts Advise Switching to 'Green' Inhalers to Cut Costs and Reduce Carbon Footprint
Sun, April 18, 2021

Experts Advise Switching to 'Green' Inhalers to Cut Costs and Reduce Carbon Footprint

Most asthma inhalers today have potent greenhouse gas propellants, which means that those who use them contribute to carbon footprints / Photo by: Antonio Guillem via Shutterstock

 

Most asthma inhalers today have potent greenhouse gas propellants, which means that those who use them contribute to carbon footprints. Switching to 'greener' inhalers could help reduce carbon emissions, a new study has found, as well as reduce drug costs.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge said swapping to alternatives like dry powder inhalers could reduce carbon emissions equivalent to the amount when meat consumption is reduced or recycling is practiced. Although, they also warned that making the switch should be done with their physician's advice.

Contributing to the carbon footprint

Asthma affects about 235 million people worldwide, is common among children, and led to 383,000 deaths in 2015. The strongest risk factors for developing asthma are inhaled substances and particles that may provoke allergic reactions or irritate the airways, according to the World Health Organization.

Avoiding asthma triggers reduces the severity of the disease while medication—such as inhalers—can help control it. In 2017, England prescribed about 50 million inhalers to asthma sufferers to manage the disease—seven out of 10 of which were metered-dose inhalers.

Most people with asthma usually use metered-dose inhalers to treat the symptoms of their condition, releasing medicine directly into their lungs to widen the airways and allow easier breathing. Metered-dose inhalers contain liquefied, compressed gases to act as a propellant to atomize the drug.

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were once used as the propellant but were banned for being potent greenhouse gases and contributing to ozone depletion. It was then replaced by hydrofluoroalkane (HFA) propellants.

HFAs don't damage the ozone layer, but they are still potent greenhouse gases. It is this propellant that causes current metered-dose inhalers to contribute an estimated 3.9 percent of the carbon footprint of the UK's National Health Service, the researchers said in a statement.

"There have been calls to switch away from HFA inhalers because of their environmental impact," the researchers noted. "Effective alternatives are already available, such as dry powder inhalers and aqueous mist inhalers. Switching to inhalers with a lower carbon footprint is a key part of the NHS Sustainable Development Unit's strategy." The NHS is the UK's National Health Service.

However, they also acknowledged that the higher "up-front" price of some dry powder inhalers is a great challenge to making the switch to alternative inhalers.

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were once used as the propellant but were banned for being potent greenhouse gases and contributing to ozone depletion / Photo by: Olivier Le Moal via Shutterstock

 

Possibility of a switch

In the Cambridge study, the researchers examined NHS prescription data from England in 2017. They also gathered carbon footprint data on commonly used inhalers in England to compare the financial and environmental costs of different inhalers.

Results show that metered-dose inhalers contribute up to 37 times more in the carbon footprint compared to dry powder inhalers, CNN reports. It adds that replacing even 10 percent of metered-dose inhalers in England with the cheapest dry powder will lead to 58 kilotons of CO2 reduction—that's about the same levels as 180,000 return car journeys from London to Edinburgh.

Alexander Wilkinson, respiratory medicine consultant and an author of the Cambridge study, said that moving to 'greener' inhalers means ensuring that the replacements will be cost-effective.

One of the findings in their study showed that switching to less expensive brands makes a positive impact on carbon emissions while also reducing drug costs.

They found that doing the 10 percent replacement would also lead to a reduction in drug costs of £8.2million annually.

Results show that at the individual level, each replacement would have the equivalent of between 150 and 400kg of CO2 annually. The researchers say this is similar to many actions that environmentally-concerned individuals are currently taking such as recycling or reducing meat consumption.

Climate change and health

The climate crisis holds a significant threat to public health and will affect the poorest and those with existing conditions the most.

James Smith, a consultant in public health at the University of Cambridge and author of the study, said that the study demonstrated how switching to greener inhalers not only helps individuals but also the NHS as a whole in reducing their impact on the climate.

"This is an important step towards creating a zero-carbon healthcare system fit for the 21st century," he said.

The researchers said that as asthma sufferers continue their regular medication, they should also discuss their options with a medical professional—especially if they are planning to switch to alternatives.

Wilkinson stressed the importance of continuous treatment even while reducing the patients' carbon footprint, saying: "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."

They also warned that making the switch should not come at the expense of the patients' health. It's important that asthma sufferers receive the medication they need to maintain their wellbeing and avoid a life-threatening asthma attack, said Jessika Kirby, Head of Health Advice at Asthma UK.

She added that it may be complicated for people with asthma to switch to a different type of inhaler since it involves learning the mechanism.

The rising discussions on climate change have called on many industries to take on alternatives that are better for the environment and, by extension, to people's health. It's rare that the medical sector is called out on its contributions to carbon footprints, but the recent study proved that even medications have a negative impact on the environment.

Switching to greener solutions leads to positive impacts both on the environment and public health, but doing so should not come at the cost of someone's wellbeing.

The climate crisis holds a significant threat to public health and will affect the poorest and those with existing conditions the most / Photo by: Roschetzky Photography via Shutterstock