Your surgery could harm yourself and the planet. Here's what some doctors are doing about it.
This is part 1 of a three part series on a new generation of doctors leading the charge to make the health care industry more sustainable - for the benefit of their patients and the planet. Read part 2 here and part 3 here.
Susanne Koch, an anesthesiologist and neurologist, reached a pivot point when she was up to her neck in water, almost literally. The basement of her house in Berlin had flooded in the summer of 2018, when Berlin was pummeled by unusually strong rains. After she drained the house, “I wanted to dig into facts, to understand how exactly these extreme weather events are related to climate change,” she says.
Studying the scientific literature, she realized how urgent the climate crisis is, but the biggest shock was to learn that her profession contributed substantially to the problem: Inhalation gases used during medical procedures are among the most damaging greenhouse gases. Some inhalation gases are 3,000 times more damaging for the climate than CO2, Koch discovered. “Spending seven hours in the surgery room is the equivalent of driving a car for four days nonstop,” she says. Her job of helping people at Europe’s largest university hospital, the Charité in Berlin, was inadvertently damaging both the people and the planet.
“Nobody had ever even mentioned a word about that during my training,” Koch says.
On the whole, the medical sector is responsible for a disproportionally large percentage of greenhouse gas emissions, with the U.S. as the biggest culprit. According to a key paper published in 2020 in Health Affairs, the health industry “is among the most carbon-intensive service sectors in the industrialized world,” accounting for between 4.4 percent and 4.6 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. “It’s not just anesthesia but health care that has a problem,” says Jodi Sherman, anesthesiology professor and Medical Director of the Program on Healthcare Environmental Sustainability at Yale University as well as co-director of the Lancet Planetary Health Commission on Sustainable Healthcare. In the U.S., health care greenhouse gas emissions make up about 8.5 percent of domestic greenhouse gas emissions. They rose 6 percent from 2010 to 2018, to nearly 1,700 kilograms per person, more than in any other nation.
Of course, patients worry primarily about safety, not sustainability. Yet, Koch emphasizes that “as doctors, we have the responsibility to do no harm, and this includes making sure that we use resources as sustainably as possible.” Studies show that 2018 greenhouse gas and toxic air pollutant emissions resulted in the loss of 388,000 disability-adjusted life years in the U.S. alone. “Disease burden from health care pollution is of the same order of magnitude as deaths from preventable medical errors, and should be taken just as seriously,” Sherman cautions.
When Koch, the anesthesiologist, started discussing sustainable options with colleagues, the topic was immediately met with plenty of interest. Her experience is consistent with the latest representative poll of the nonprofit Foundation Health in Germany. Nine out of ten doctors were interested in urgently finding sustainable solutions for medical services but lacked knowhow and resources. For teaching purposes, Sherman and her team have developed the Yale Gassing Greener app that allows anesthesiologists to compare how much pollution they can avoid through choosing different anesthesia methods. Sherman also published professional guidelines intended to help her colleagues better understand how various methods affect carbon emissions.
Significant traces of inhalation gases have been found in Antarctica and the Himalayas, far from the vast majority of surgery rooms.
A solution espoused by both Sherman and Koch is comparatively simple: They stopped using desflurane, which is by far the most damaging of all inhalation gases to the climate. Its greenhouse effect is 2,590 times stronger than carbon dioxide. The Yale New Haven Hospital already stopped using desflurane in 2013, becoming the first known healthcare organization to eliminate a drug based on environmental grounds. Sherman points out that this resulted in saving more than $1.2 million in costs and 1,600 tons of CO2 equivalents, about the same as the exhaust from 360 passenger vehicles per year.
At the Charité, Koch claims that switching to other anesthesiology choices, such as propofol, has eliminated 90 percent of the climate gas emissions in the anesthesiology department since 2016. Young anesthesiologists are still taught to use desflurane as the standard because desflurane is absorbed less into the patients’ bodies, and they wake up faster. However, Koch who has worked as an anesthesiologist since 2006, says that with a little bit of experience, you can learn when to stop giving the propofol so it's timed just as well with a person’s wake-up process. In addition, “patients are less likely to feel nauseous after being given propofol,” Koch says. Intravenous drugs might require more skill, she adds, "but there is nothing unique to the drug desflurane that cannot be accomplished with other medications.”
Desflurane isn’t the only gas to be concerned about. Nitrous oxide is the second most damaging because it’s extremely long-lived in the environment, and it depletes the ozone layer. Climate-conscious anesthesiologists are phasing out this gas, too, or have implemented measures to decrease leaks.
Internationally, 192 governments agreed in the Kyoto protocol of 2005 to reduce halogenated hydrocarbons – resulting from inhalation gases, including desflurane and nitrous oxide – because of their immense climate-warming potential, and in 2016, they pledged to eliminate them by 2035. However, the use of inhalation anesthetics continues to increase worldwide, not least because more people access healthcare in developing countries, and because people in industrialized countries live longer and therefore need more surgeries. Significant traces of inhalation gases have been found in Antarctica and the Himalayas, far from the vast majority of surgery rooms.
Certain companies are now pushing new technology to capture inhalation gases before they are released into the atmosphere, but both Sherman and Koch believe marketing claims of 99 percent efficiency amount to greenwashing. After investigating the technology first-hand and visiting the company that is producing such filters in Germany, Koch concluded that such technology only reduces emissions by 25 percent. And Sherman believes such initiatives are akin to the fallacy of recycling plastic. In addition to questioning their efficiency, Sherman fears such technology “gives the illusion there is a magical solution that means I don’t need to change my behavior, reduce my waste and choose less harmful options.”
Financial interests are at play, too. “Desflurane is the most expensive inhalation gas, and some think, the most expensive must be the best,” Koch says. Both Koch and Sherman lament that efforts to increase sustainability in the medical sector are entirely voluntary in their countries and led by a few dedicated individual professionals while industry-wide standards and transparency are needed, a notion expressed in the American Hospital Association’s Sustainability Roadmap.
Susanne Koch, an anesthesiologist in Berlin, wants her colleagues to stop using a gas called desflurane, which is by far the most damaging of all inhalation gases to the climate.
Other countries have done more. The European Union recommends reducing inhalation gases and even contemplated a ban of desflurane, except in medical emergencies. In 2008, the National Health Service (NHS) created a Sustainable Development Unit, which measures CO2 emissions in the U.K. health sector. NHS is the first national health service that pledged to reach net zero carbon by 2040. The carbon footprint of the NHS fell by 26 percent from 1990 to 2019, mostly due to reduced use of certain inhalers and the switch to renewable energy for heat and power. “The evidence that the climate emergency is a health emergency is overwhelming,” said Nick Watts, the NHS Chief Sustainability Officer, in a press release, “with health professionals already needing to manage its symptoms.”
Sherman is a leading voice in demanding action in the U.S. To her, comprehensive solutions start with the mandatory, transparent measurement of emissions in the health sector to tackle the biggest sources of pollution. While the Biden administration highlighted its efforts to reduce these kinds of emissions during the United Nations Climate Conference (COP27) in November 2022 and U.S. delegates announced that more than 100 health care organizations signed the voluntary Health Sector Climate Pledge, with the aim to reduce emissions by 50 percent in the next eight years, Sherman is convinced that voluntary pledges are not enough. “Voluntary measures are insufficient,” she testified in congress. “The vast majority of U.S. health care organizations remain uncommitted to timely action. Those that are committed lack policies and knowledge to support necessary changes; even worse, existing policies drive inappropriate consumption of resources and pollution.”
Both Sherman and Koch look at the larger picture. “Health care organizations have an obligation to their communities to protect public health,” Sherman says. “We must lead by example. That includes setting ambitious, science-based carbon reduction targets to achieve net zero emissions before 2050. We must quantify current emissions and their sources, particularly throughout the health care supply chains.”
Tom Oxley is building what he calls a “natural highway into the brain” that lets people use their minds to control their phones and computers. The device, called the Stentrode, could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living with spinal cord paralysis, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Leaps.org talked with Dr. Oxley for today’s podcast. A fascinating thing about the Stentrode is that it works very differently from other “brain computer interfaces” you may be familiar with, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Some BCIs are implanted by surgeons directly into a person’s brain, but the Stentrode is much less invasive. Dr. Oxley’s company, Synchron, opts for a “natural” approach, using stents in blood vessels to access the brain. This offers some major advantages to the handful of people who’ve already started to use the Stentrode.
The audio of this episode improves about 10 minutes in. (There was a minor headset issue early on, but everything is audible throughout.) Dr. Oxley’s work creates game-changing opportunities for patients desperate for new options. His take on where we're headed with BCIs is must listening for anyone who cares about the future of health and technology.
In our conversation, Dr. Oxley talks about “Bluetooth brain”; the critical role of AI in the present and future of BCIs; how BCIs compare to voice command technology; regulatory frameworks for revolutionary technologies; specific people with paralysis who’ve been able to regain some independence thanks to the Stentrode; what it means to be a neurointerventionist; how to scale BCIs for more people to use them; the risks of BCIs malfunctioning; organic implants; and how BCIs help us understand the brain, among other topics.
Dr. Oxley received his PhD in neuro engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He is the founding CEO of Synchron and an associate professor and the head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He’s also a clinical instructor in the Deepartment of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Oxley has completed more than 1,600 endovascular neurosurgical procedures on patients, including people with aneurysms and strokes, and has authored over 100 peer reviewed articles.
Synchron website - https://synchron.com/
Assessment of Safety of a Fully Implanted Endovascular Brain-Computer Interface for Severe Paralysis in 4 Patients (paper co-authored by Tom Oxley) - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/art...
More research related to Synchron's work - https://synchron.com/research
Tom Oxley on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomoxl
Tom Oxley on Twitter - https://twitter.com/tomoxl?lang=en
Tom Oxley website - https://tomoxl.com/
Novel brain implant helps paralyzed woman speak using digital avatar - https://engineering.berkeley.edu/news/2023/08/novel-brain-implant-helps-paralyzed-woman-speak-using-a-digital-avatar/
Edward Chang lab - https://changlab.ucsf.edu/
BCIs convert brain activity into text at 62 words per minute - https://med.stanford.edu/neurosurgery/news/2023/he...
Leaps.org: The Mind-Blowing Promise of Neural Implants - https://leaps.org/the-mind-blowing-promise-of-neural-implants/
For generations, the Indigenous Tjupan people of Australia enjoyed the sweet treat of honey made by honeypot ants. As a favorite pastime, entire families would go searching for the underground colonies, first spotting a worker ant and then tracing it to its home. The ants, which belong to the species called Camponotus inflatus, usually build their subterranean homes near the mulga trees, Acacia aneura. Having traced an ant to its tree, it would be the women who carefully dug a pit next to a colony, cautious not to destroy the entire structure. Once the ant chambers were exposed, the women would harvest a small amount to avoid devastating the colony’s stocks—and the family would share the treat.
The Tjupan people also knew that the honey had antimicrobial properties. “You could use it for a sore throat,” says Danny Ulrich, a member of the Tjupan nation. “You could also use it topically, on cuts and things like that.”
These hunts have become rarer, as many of the Tjupan people have moved away and, up until now, the exact antimicrobial properties of the ant honey remained unknown. But recently, scientists Andrew Dong and Kenya Fernandes from the University of Sydney, joined Ulrich, who runs the Honeypot Ants tours in Kalgoorlie, a city in Western Australia, on a honey-gathering expedition. Afterwards, they ran a series of experiments analyzing the honey’s antimicrobial activity—and confirmed that the Indigenous wisdom was true. The honey was effective against Staphylococcus aureus, a common pathogen responsible for sore throats, skin infections like boils and sores, and also sepsis, which can result in death. Moreover, the honey also worked against two species of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus, which can be pathogenic to humans, especially those with suppressed immune systems.
In the era of growing antibiotic resistance and the rising threat of pathogenic fungi, these findings may help scientists identify and make new antimicrobial compounds. “Natural products have been honed over thousands and millions of years by nature and evolution,” says Fernandes. “And some of them have complex and intricate properties that make them really important as potential new antibiotics. “
In an era of growing resistance to antibiotics and new threats of fungi infections, the latest findings about honeypot ants are helping scientists identify new antimicrobial drugs.
Bee honey is also known for its antimicrobial properties, but bees produce it very differently than the ants. Bees collect nectar from flowers, which they regurgitate at the hive and pack into the hexagonal honeycombs they build for storage. As they do so, they also add into the mix an enzyme called glucose oxidase produced by their glands. The enzyme converts atmospheric oxygen into hydrogen peroxide, a reactive molecule that destroys bacteria and acts as a natural preservative. After the bees pack the honey into the honeycombs, they fan it with their wings to evaporate the water. Once a honeycomb is full, the bees put a beeswax cover on it, where it stays well-preserved thanks to the enzymatic action, until the bees need it.
Less is known about the chemistry of ants’ honey-making. Similarly to bees, they collect nectar. They also collect the sweet sap of the mulga tree. Additionally, they also “milk” the aphids—small sap-sucking insects that live on the tree. When ants tickle the aphids with their antennae, the latter release a sweet substance, which the former also transfer to their colonies. That’s where the honey management difference becomes really pronounced. The ants don’t build any kind of structures to store their honey. Instead, they store it in themselves.
The workers feed their harvest to their fellow ants called repletes, stuffing them up to the point that their swollen bellies outgrow the ants themselves, looking like amber-colored honeypots—hence the name. Because of their size, repletes don’t move, but hang down from the chamber’s ceiling, acting as living feedstocks. When food becomes scarce, they regurgitate their reserves to their colony’s brethren. It’s not clear whether the repletes die afterwards or can be restuffed again. “That's a good question,” Dong says. “After they've been stretched, they can't really return to exactly the same shape.”
These replete ants are the “treat” the Tjupan women dug for. Once they saw the round-belly ants inside the chambers, they would reach in carefully and get a few scoops of them. “You see a lot of honeypot ants just hanging on the roof of the little openings,” says Ulrich’s mother, Edie Ulrich. The women would share the ants with family members who would eat them one by one. “They're very delicate,” shares Edie Ulrich—you have to take them out carefully, so they don’t accidentally pop and become a wasted resource. “Because you’d lose all this precious honey.”
Dong stumbled upon the honeypot ants phenomenon because he was interested in Indigenous foods and went on Ulrich’s tour. He quickly became fascinated with the insects and their role in the Indigenous culture. “The honeypot ants are culturally revered by the Indigenous people,” he says. Eventually he decided to test out the honey’s medicinal qualities.
The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus.
To do this, the two scientists first diluted the ant honey with water. “We used something called doubling dilutions, which means that we made 32 percent dilutions, and then we halve that to 16 percent and then we half that to eight percent,” explains Fernandes. The goal was to obtain as much results as possible with the meager honey they had. “We had very, very little of the honeypot ant honey so we wanted to maximize the spectrum of results we can get without wasting too much of the sample.”
After that, the researchers grew different microbes inside a nutrient rich broth. They added the broth to the different honey dilutions and incubated the mixes for a day or two at the temperature favorable to the germs’ growth. If the resulting solution turned turbid, it was a sign that the bugs proliferated. If it stayed clear, it meant that the honey destroyed them. The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus. “It was really quite amazing,” Fernandes says. “Eight milliliters of honey in 92 milliliters of water is a really tiny amount of honey compared to the amount of water.”
Similar to bee honey, the ants’ honey exhibited some peroxide antimicrobial activity, researchers found, but given how little peroxide was in the solution, they think the honey also kills germs by a different mechanism. “When we measured, we found that [the solution] did have some hydrogen peroxide, but it didn't have as much of it as we would expect based on how active it was,” Fernandes says. “Whether this hydrogen peroxide also comes from glucose oxidase or whether it's produced by another source, we don't really know,” she adds. The research team does have some hypotheses about the identity of this other germ-killing agent. “We think it is most likely some kind of antimicrobial peptide that is actually coming from the ant itself.”
The honey also has a very strong activity against the two types of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus. Both fungi are associated with trees and decaying leaves, as well as in the soils where ants live, so the insects likely have evolved some natural defense compounds, which end up inside the honey.
It wouldn’t be the first time when modern medicines take their origin from the natural world or from the indigenous people’s knowledge. The bark of the cinchona tree native to South America contains quinine, a substance that treats malaria. The Indigenous people of the Andes used the bark to quell fever and chills for generations, and when Europeans began to fall ill with malaria in the Amazon rainforest, they learned to use that medicine from the Andean people.
The wonder drug aspirin similarly takes its origin from a bark of a tree—in this case a willow.
Even some anticancer compounds originated from nature. A chemotherapy drug called Paclitaxel, was originally extracted from the Pacific yew trees, Taxus brevifolia. The samples of the Pacific yew bark were first collected in 1962 by researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture who were looking for natural compounds that might have anti-tumor activity. In December 1992, the FDA approved Paclitaxel (brand name Taxol) for the treatment of ovarian cancer and two years later for breast cancer.
In the era when the world is struggling to find new medicines fast enough to subvert a fungal or bacterial pandemic, these discoveries can pave the way to new therapeutics. “I think it's really important to listen to indigenous cultures and to take their knowledge because they have been using these sources for a really, really long time,” Fernandes says. Now we know it works, so science can elucidate the molecular mechanisms behind it, she adds. “And maybe it can even provide a lead for us to develop some kind of new treatments in the future.”
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.