Some of the inhalers used to treat conditions such as asthma are as bad for the environment as eating meat.
That’s according to new research led by the University of Cambridge, which found metered-dose inhalers currently contribute an estimated 3.9% of the carbon footprint of the NHS and suggests switching to alternative, “greener” inhalers would result in large carbon savings.
Moving towards the alternatives would have as big an impact on the environment as reducing meat consumption or recycling, the researchers say.
In 2017, around 50 million inhalers were prescribed in England, of which seven out of 10 were metered-dose inhalers, compared to only one in 10 in Sweden.
The gas, called hydrofluoroalkane (HFA), is used as a propellant to squirt the medicine out of the inhaler.
Researchers say there have been calls to switch away from HFA inhalers because of their environmental impact and effective alternatives, such as dry powder inhalers and aqueous mist inhalers, are already available. However, a significant barrier to moving to alternative inhalers is the higher upfront price of some dry powder inhalers.
The team found the carbon footprints of metered-dose inhalers were between 10 to 37 times those of dry powder inhalers.
At 2017 prescription levels, replacing one in 10 metered-dose inhalers in England with the cheapest equivalent dry powder inhalers could reduce carbon emissions by 58 kilotonnes – roughly the emissions that would be emitted from 180,000 return car journeys from London to Edinburgh.
At the individual level, each metered-dose inhaler replaced by a dry powder inhaler could save the equivalent of between 150kg and 400kg of CO2 every year.
Dr James Smith, Consultant in Public Health from the Department of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge said: “Climate change is a huge and present threat to health that will disproportionately impact the poorest and most vulnerable on the planet, including people with pre-existing lung disease.
“Our study shows that switching to inhalers which are better for the environment could help individuals and the NHS as a whole, reduce their impact on the climate significantly. This is an important step towards creating a zero carbon healthcare system fit for the 21st century.”
Dr Alexander Wilkinson, Consultant in Respiratory Medicine from East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust added: “It’s important to stress that patients shouldn’t stop using their usual treatments to reduce their carbon footprint. 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.”