Anaesthesia for surgeries can affect the environment – but could things change?

  • General anaesthesia makes it possible to perform life-saving surgery 
  • Research suggests that local anaesthesia for some procedures could reduce greenhouse gases
  • Deciding what type of anaesthesia to use will, however, depend on the best outcome for the patient 

When we think of the gases that pollute the earth’s atmosphere, we tend to think of large factories spewing carbon dioxide into the air, or cars and lorries spewing fumes. Most of us have no idea that the one thing that makes life-saving surgeries possible is something that also makes a significant contribution to greenhouse gases.

General anaesthesia, even though it’s used indoors, can have a major effect on the ozone layer, contributing to climate change.

Currently, gases such as nitrous oxide and desflurane are used to put patients to sleep. Now a new study published in the British Medical Journal suggests that switching to a local anaesthetic, where possible, can help cut harmful greenhouse emissions.

Why is general anaesthetic so bad for the ozone layer?

The researchers used a hospital in New York to see what happens to the emissions inside the building when the surgeons perform several hip and knee replacements under general anaesthetic.

When general anaesthetic is administered to the patient, a very small amount (less than 5%) of these gases is actually metabolised by the body. The rest travels upwards, directly into the atmosphere.

And according to the study, the gases most commonly used, nitrous oxide and desflurane, have an extremely high potential for global warming. For example, one hour’s use of desflurane is equivalent to driving a car for about 750 kilometres.

Although the authors state that there is no data that can give the specific percentage of anaesthetic gasses in the total amount of greenhouse gases, studies estimated that healthcare systems are responsible for 5% to 10% of the national pollutant emissions in the USA – which means that anaesthetic gases are indeed a great contributor to climate change.

But what about those procedures where local anaesthetics are not possible?

Local anaesthesia involves only numbing the region where a procedure is performed while you maintain your consciousness throughout the procedure. Local anaesthetics are considered safer as patients recover more quickly and there are no special preparations needed beforehand.

However, local anaesthesia is not possible for all types of surgeries, the authors state in their study. They stress that the decision to use a specific anaesthetic method should depend on what's the best for each individual patient. In their research, the authors focused on the increased use of local anaesthetics for hip and knee replacements.

In a nutshell, using local anaesthesia wherever possible could lead to better outcomes and quality of care for patients undergoing certain surgeries, while reducing the carbon footprint of operating theatres.

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Image credit: Pexels

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