Is my asthma inhaler damaging the environment?

The Planet Destroyers?

Are we (the asthmatics of this world) all walking around with planet-destroying Infinity Stones in our pockets? Is my asthma inhaler damaging the environment?

An article from the BBC claimed that the carbon footprint of asthma is ‘as big as eating meat’ (the inverted commas are theirs, not mine, which is funny because that quote does not exist in the report they claim to be reporting on. Grr!)

So what is the truth? Can cutting back on your medication help save the planet? Or are we all miniature Thanos’, intent on doing more damage than anyone else to our Pale Blue Dot? The truth, unsurprisingly, lies in the context of the research. In Sweden, for example, 9 out of 10 inhalers are powder based, so there no injection of hydrofluoroalkane (HFA) from the propellant. A group set out to understand what the potential impact of our inhalers is. No mean feat as a lot of the data is hidden by the companies that manufacture the medicines. Turns out there is quite an impact, far more than I expected, but then hyperbole takes over and the story gains traction for all the wrong reasons.

Firstly, before you read any further, NEVER CHANGE YOUR DOSAGE unless you have agreed it with your GP or asthma nurse. NEVER.

Secondly, there are cost implications to changing medication. The estimated increase is £12.7 million for every 10% reduction in metered inhalers. So a reduction to Swedish levels of inhaler usage would be over £100 million, or 312 nurses per year. Hmm…. You win some, you lose some. The long term cost to the environment maybe doesn’t count when we already have nursing shortages, and we haven’t even looked at the efficacy of the alternative medications.

My Ventolin inhaler has a carbon footprint of 25kg Co2. What?! But this does, of course, take into account the entire process of manufacture, not quite the same as carrying around a planet destroyer in my pocket. If we take the numbers at face value, reducing metered inhaler use will reduce your personal carbon footprint by 150-400kg CO2 per year. I’m not quite sure where they then leapt to the meat consumption comparison, as a quick trawl of the internet gives me impact numbers from 600 – 2500kg CO2 for average meat consumption. So should you change to powdered medication? It certainly is a good idea to discuss it with your GP or asthma nurse on your next visit/phone consultation (you DO go for regular check-ups, don’t you?!) as they can tell you if a change is going to better for your health, or not. Personally, I changed to Symbicort a number of years ago as I suffered with constant sore throats. Since the change some 8 (?) years ago I only rarely have throat problems (not even once this year, though there could be other reasons for this). Because this, in turn, means less inflammation of my airways, I use less than two Ventolin inhalers each year, and that is predominantly preventative before running.

So us my asthma medication bad for the environment?

Maybe just a little bit, but that can be offset by discussing alternatives with your asthma nurse/GP. You could plant a tree. Each one would roughly offset one inhaler.

A more pragmatic solution will be to simply reduce your meat consumption.

What will you do?

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