Asthma Patients Should Not Feel Guilty For Their Carbon Footprint

Photo courtesy of NIAID

The University of Cambridge released a study that says that people who suffer from asthma — a lung condition that can be life-threatening — can reduce their carbon footprint by switching their inhalers to eco-friendly alternatives. Despite inhalers being a medical necessity to asthmatic people, the study analyzes the negative impacts of inhalers on the environment, as some release greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

Inhalers are medical devices that are commonly used by asthmatic people and are extremely vital to those susceptible to asthma attacks. They release medicine directly into a patient’s lungs, making it easier to breathe by widening the airways so oxygen can pass.

Cambridge researchers discovered that switching from metered-dose inhalers (MDI) to dry powder inhalers (DPI) can have the same ecological impact on the environment as turning vegetarian or becoming an avid recycler. MDIs contain a type of greenhouse gas called hydrofluoroalkane that is used as a propellant to atomize the drug and directly pump it into a patient’s lungs. As the “greener” alternative, DPIs release fewer pollutants and have a carbon footprint that is 10 to 37 times smaller than that of MDIs.   

According to a report by the U.K. House of Commons, MDIs account for 4% of the National Health Service’s greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers from the report also estimate that “replacing even one in every 10 of these inhalers with a more environmentally friendly type (dry powder inhalers) would reduce carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by 58,000 tons.”

While it is important to protect the environment, it should not be done at the expense of an individual’s health condition, let alone a device that can save one’s life from an asthma attack. As someone who has lived with asthma since the age of five and understands the difficulties that come with having a lung condition, it is not as simple of a process to switch inhalers as the Cambridge study depicts. It is also impossible for some asthmatic people who require specific inhaler techniques and medication to simply switch inhalers. There are asthma patients who do not have the opportunity to switch to “greener” inhalers because it is not clinically advisable for them. 

“We recognize the need to protect the environment, but it’s critically important that people with asthma receive the medicines they need to stay well and avoid a life-threatening asthma attack,” Head of Health Advice at Asthma U.K. Jessica Kirby said. The British study unfairly condemns those in need of the life-saving medication and puts the burden on the individual rather than the corporations that are responsible for producing the medication in the first place. 

Change is absolutely necessary for the sake of the environment. However, it should not start from the patients who depend on inhalers and who cannot switch to eco-friendly alternatives like DPIs.

Future studies regarding our environment should focus on other pollutants people do not rely on to survive, such as vehicle pollution that can cause asthma in the first place.

The World Health Organization states that “asthma is under-diagnosed and under-treated, creating a substantial burden to individuals and families and possibly restricting individuals’ activities for a lifetime.” Asthmatic people already live with challenges that can last a lifetime, adding the burden of global warming on their shoulders is extreme and unnecessary. There are an estimated 235 million people suffering from asthma, and those who are unable to switch to DPIs should not have to feel guilty nor feel the need to stop their medication all-together in order to help the environment. 

Bernadine Sobingsobing is a third year English major. She can be reached at bsobings@uci.edu.