Releases of anesthetic gases are beginning to accumulate in the earth’s atmosphere in increasing amounts, contributing on a small scale to climate change. According to a new study published online in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, the most common gases in anesthesia — desflurane, isoflurane, and sevoflurane — are being found more frequently across the globe, reaching as far as Antarctica.

Like carbon dioxide, anesthesia gases contribute to more energy from the sun being stored in our atmosphere. As a result, anesthesia gases behave like greenhouse gases, trapping in heat and contributing overall to global warming. According to Martin Vollmer of the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology in Dubendorf, Switzerland, the amount of anesthetic gases in the atmosphere is significantly less than carbon dioxide, but still making an impact.

In a 2014 report conducted by Vollmer and his colleagues, they discovered a concentration 0.30 parts per trillion (ppt) of desflurane within the atmosphere. Isoflurane, sevoflurane, and halothane (another anesthetic gas) were measured at 0.095 ppt, 0.13 ppt, and 0.0092 ppt respectively. Comparatively, the concentration of carbon dioxide within the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million, making it a billion times more abundant than anesthetic gases. The team did not measure nitrous oxide, another common greenhouse gas found in anesthesia gas because it has multiple other origins from which it enters the atmosphere.

Although small when compared with more significant greenhouse gases, Vollmer warns that anesthesia gases pack more of a punch than carbon dioxide. One kilogram of desflurane (2.2 pounds), for example, is equivalent to 2,500 kilograms (5,512 pounds) of carbon dioxide in its ability to contribute to global warming. “On a kilogram-per-kilogram basis,” Vollmer said in a press release, “it is so much more potent.”

Employing the first “top-down” estimates to gather their data, researchers collected actual atmospheric measurements from air samples collected in remote sites in the Northern Hemisphere since 2000, along with other places in the North Pacific in 2012. As a result, researchers were able to gather information on how many metric tons of each anesthetic gas were released into the atmosphere in 2014, whereas prior research derived its data from factors that contribute to atmospheric concentrations, like how much of each gas is sold annually, or how much gas escapes through operating room vents and is not metabolized by patients.

Despite the currently small concentration of anesthetic gases in the atmosphere, it is becoming a growing concern to the health care industry as the number continues to climb. According to Jodi Sherman, an anesthesiologist of the Yale University School of Medicine and reviewer of this research, this is no small matter at all. “From my perspective what makes it alarming is that it’s significant enough that it could be measured at all,” she told Think Progress, “and that as population grows and number of surgeries increases, this can be expected to rise.”

Currently, the World Health Organization recognizes climate change as the number one health issue plaguing our planet in the 21st century, yet according to Sherman, the health care industry is one of the biggest contributors to the problem. “Health care in and of itself in the U.S. is one of the worst polluting industries. It generates eight percent of U.S greenhouse gases,” she said. Because of this, Sherman believes changes must be made to how we anesthetize our patients for surgery, especially when other methods are readily available, and new advances in the field are creating alternative possibilities.

Sherman claims that dropping desflurane is both a necessary and probable step, yet others in the field do not agree. According to Edmond Eger of the University of California at San Francisco, it is not the chemicals themselves that are creating the problem, but how they are administered. “Many anesthetists deliver sevoflurane or isoflurane in a two-three liters per minute flow but deliver desflurane in a lower flow — 0.5 to one liter per minute. … Some believe that desflurane has clinical advantages that argue for its continued use,” Eger said.

Sherman, however, remains unconvinced. “There’s nothing unique about desflurane that we can’t do with other drugs,” she claimed. “Desflurane we could live without, and every little bit makes a difference.”

Though the problem may seem insignificant now, all factors contributing to climate change must be evaluated and remedied if we are to counteract its unprecedented effects. Sherman sites the possibility of minimizing the flow of gas during surgery, or using alternatives to gas like intravenous anesthesia or regional anesthesia when clinically applicable.

Source: Vollmer M, Rigby M, Hill M, et al. Modern Inhalation Anesthetics: Potent Greenhouse Gases in the Global Atmosphere. Geophysical Research Letters. 2015.