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.”
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
- Attending sports events is linked to greater life satisfaction
- Identifying specific brain tumors in under 90 seconds with AI
- LSD - minus hallucinations - raises hopes for mental health
- New research on the benefits of cold showers
- Inspire awe in your kids and reap the benefits
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Scientists and dark sky advocates team up to flip the switch on light pollution
As a graduate student in observational astronomy at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, Diane Turnshek remembers the starry skies above the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tucson outskirts. Back then, she could observe faint objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters on most nights.
When Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow. Over the next two decades, Turnshek almost forgot what a dark sky looked like. She witnessed pristine dark skies in their full glory again during a visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in early 2000s.
“I was shocked at how beautiful the dark skies were in the West. That is when I realized that most parts of the world have lost access to starry skies because of light pollution,” says Turnshek, an astronomer and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2015, she became a dark sky advocate.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or wasteful use of artificial light.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- which became commercially available in 2002 and rapidly gained popularity in offices, schools, and hospitals when their price dropped six years later — inadvertently fueled the surge in light pollution. As traditional light sources like halogen, fluorescent, mercury, and sodium vapor lamps have been phased out or banned, LEDs became the main source of lighting globally in 2019. Switching to LEDs has been lauded as a win-win decision. Not only are they cheap but they also consume a fraction of electricity compared to their traditional counterparts.
But as cheap LED installations became omnipresent, they increased light pollution. “People have been installing LEDs thinking they are making a positive change for the environment. But LEDs are a lot brighter than traditional light sources,” explains Ashley Wilson, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “Despite being energy-efficient, they are increasing our energy consumption. No one expected this kind of backlash from switching to LEDs.”
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings — the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies. In the U.S. and Europe, that figure is above 99 percent.
According to the IDA, $3 billion worth of electricity is lost to skyglow every year in the U.S. alone — thanks to unnecessary and poorly designed outdoor lighting installations. Worse, the resulting light pollution has insidious impacts on humans and wildlife — in more ways than one.
Disrupting the brain’s clock
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings—the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. Humans and other mammals have neurons in their retina called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells collect information about the visual world and directly influence the brain’s biological clock in the hypothalamus.
The ipRGCs are particularly sensitive to the blue light that LEDs emit at high levels, resulting in suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. A 2020 JAMA Psychiatry study detailed how teenagers who lived in areas with bright outdoor lighting at night went to bed late and slept less, which made them more prone to mood disorders and anxiety.
“Many people are skeptical when they are told something as ubiquitous as lights could have such profound impacts on public health,” says Gena Glickman, director of the Chronobiology, Light and Sleep Lab at Uniformed Services University. “But when the clock in our brains gets exposed to blue light at nighttime, it could result in a lot of negative consequences like impaired cognitive function and neuro-endocrine disturbances.”
In the last 12 years, several studies indicated that light pollution exposure is associated with obesity and diabetes in humans and animals alike. While researchers are still trying to understand the exact underlying mechanisms, they found that even one night of too much light exposure could negatively affect the metabolic system. Studies have linked light pollution to a higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and prostate cancer. A 2017 study found that female nurses exposed to light pollution have a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified long-term night shiftwork as a probable cause of cancer.
“We ignore our biological need for a natural light and dark cycle. Our patterns of light exposure have consequently become different from what nature intended,” explains Glickman.
Circadian lighting systems, designed to match individuals’ circadian rhythms, might help. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed LED light systems that mimic natural lighting fluxes, required for better sleep. In the morning the lights shine brightly as does the sun. After sunset, the system dims, once again mimicking nature, which boosts melatonin production. It can even be programmed to increase blue light indoors when clouds block sunlight’s path through windows. Studies have shown that such systems might help reduce sleep fragmentation and cognitive decline. People who spend most of their day indoors can benefit from such circadian mimics.
When Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow.
Leading to better LEDs
Light pollution disrupts the travels of millions of migratory birds that begin their long-distance journeys after sunset but end up entrapped within the sky glow of cities, becoming disoriented. A 2017 study in Nature found that nocturnal pollinators like bees, moths, fireflies and bats visit 62 percent fewer plants in areas with artificial lights compared to dark areas.
“On an evolutionary timescale, LEDs have triggered huge changes in the Earth’s environment within a relative blink of an eye,” says Wilson, the director of IDA. “Plants and animals cannot adapt so fast. They have to fight to survive with their existing traits and abilities.”
But not all types of LEDs are inherently bad -- it all comes down to how much blue light they emit. During the day, the sun emits blue light waves. By sunset, it’s replaced by red and orange light waves that stimulate melatonin production. LED’s artificial blue light, when shining at night, disrupts that. For some unknown reason, there are more bluer color LEDs made and sold.
“Communities install blue color temperature LEDs rather than redder color temperature LEDs because more of the blue ones are made; they are the status quo on the market,” says Michelle Wooten, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Most artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
While astronomers and the IDA have been educating LED manufacturers about these nuances, policymakers struggle to keep up with the growing industry. But there are things they can do—such as requiring LEDs to include dimmers. “Most LED installations can be dimmed down. We need to make the dimmable drivers a mandatory requirement while selling LED lighting,” says Nancy Clanton, a lighting engineer, designer, and dark sky advocate.
Some lighting companies have been developing more sophisticated LED lights that help support melatonin production. Lighting engineers at Crossroads LLC and Nichia Corporation have been working on creating LEDs that produce more light in the red range. “We live in a wonderful age of technology that has given us these new LED designs which cut out blue wavelengths entirely for dark-sky friendly lighting purposes,” says Wooten.
Dimming the lights to see better
The IDA and advocates like Turnshek propose that communities turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. According to the Department of Energy, 99 percent of artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
In recent years, major cities like Chicago, Austin, and Philadelphia adopted the “Lights Out” initiative encouraging communities to turn off unnecessary lights during birds’ peak migration seasons for 10 days at a time. “This poses an important question: if people can live without some lights for 10 days, why can’t they keep them turned off all year round,” says Wilson.
Most communities globally believe that keeping bright outdoor lights on all night increases security and prevents crime. But in her studies of street lights’ brightness levels in different parts of the US — from Alaska to California to Washington — Clanton found that people felt safe and could see clearly even at low or dim lighting levels.
Clanton and colleagues installed LEDs in a Seattle suburb that provided only 25 percent of lighting levels compared to what they used previously. The residents reported far better visibility because the new LEDs did not produce glare. “Visual contrast matters a lot more than lighting levels,” Clanton says. Additionally, motion sensor LEDs for outdoor lighting can go a long way in reducing light pollution.
Flipping a switch to preserve starry nights
Clanton has helped draft laws to reduce light pollution in at least 17 U.S. states. However, poor awareness of light pollution led to inadequate enforcement of these laws. Also, getting thousands of counties and municipalities within any state to comply with these regulations is a Herculean task, Turnshek points out.
Fountain Hills, a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, has rid itself of light pollution since 2018, thanks to the community's efforts to preserve dark skies.
Until LEDs became mainstream, Fountain Hills enjoyed starry skies despite its proximity to Phoenix. A mountain surrounding the town blocks most of the skyglow from the city.
“Light pollution became an issue in Fountain Hills over the years because we were not taking new LED technologies into account. Our town’s lighting code was antiquated and out-of-date,” says Vicky Derksen, a resident who is also a part of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association founded in 2017. “To preserve dark skies, we had to work with the entire town to update the local lighting code and convince residents to follow responsible outdoor lighting practices.”
Derksen and her team first tackled light pollution in the town center which has a faux fountain in the middle of a lake. “The iconic centerpiece, from which Fountain Hills got its name, had the wrong types of lighting fixtures, which created a lot of glare,” adds Derksen. They then replaced several other municipal lighting fixtures with dark-sky-friendly LEDs.
The results were awe-inspiring. After a long time, residents could see the Milky Way with crystal clear clarity. Star-gazing activities made a strong comeback across the town. But keeping light pollution low requires constant work.
Derksen and other residents regularly measure artificial light levels in
Fountain Hills. Currently, the only major source of light pollution is from extremely bright, illuminated signs which local businesses had installed in different parts of the town. While Derksen says it is an uphill battle to educate local businesses about light pollution, Fountain Hills residents are determined to protect their dark skies.
“When a river gets polluted, it can take several years before clean-up efforts see any tangible results,” says Derksen. “But the effects are immediate when you work toward reducing light pollution. All it requires is flipping a switch.”