Purpose of review
Following their use for medicinal purposes, volatile inhalational anaesthetic agents are expelled into the atmosphere where they contribute to anthropogenic climate change. We describe recent evidence examining the benefits and harms associated with their use.
The environmental harms associated with desflurane and nitrous oxide likely outweigh any purported clinical benefits. Life cycle analyses are beginning to address the many gaps in our understanding, and informing choices made on all aspects of anaesthetic care. There is, however, an urgent need to move beyond the debate about anaesthetic technique A vs. B and focus also on areas such as sustainable procurement, waste management, pharmacological stewardship and joined-up solutions.
There is now compelling evidence that anaesthetists, departments and hospitals should avoid desflurane completely, and limit nitrous oxide use to settings where there is no viable alternative, as their environmental harms outweigh any perceived clinical benefit. Life cycle analyses seem supportive of total intravenous and/or regional anaesthesia. There are many other areas where choices can be made by individual anaesthetists that contribute towards reducing the environmental burden of healthcare, such as prioritising the reduction of inappropriate resource use and over-treatment. However, this all requires joined up solutions where all parts of an organisation engage.