I breathe all the way out. There’s a quiet puff of gas from my inhaler, and I breathe all the way in. I hold my breath for a few seconds and the medicine is where it needs to be: in my lungs.
Many readers with asthma or other lung disease will recognise this ritual. But I suspect few will connect it with climate change. Until recently, neither did I.
In asthma, there is narrowing of the airways that carry air into and out of our lungs. The lining of the airways becomes swollen, muscles around the airways contract, and mucus is produced. All these changes make it hard to breathe out.
The most commonly used medicines in asthma are delivered by inhalation. Inhaling gets the medicines straight to the airways, speeding and maximising their local effects, and minimising side effects elsewhere compared to, say, swallowing tablets.
Some medicines (“relievers”) work quickly to relax the airway muscles. Others (“preventers”) work more slowly but do more good, preventing asthma’s swelling and inflammation of the airways.
In metered dose inhalers, the medicine and a pressurised propellant liquid are mixed together in a little canister, and then sprayed out of the inhaler in a measured puff of fine mist. This is inhaled, often after passing through a “spacer” which allows more of the medicine to reach the lungs. While the medicine is absorbed by the body, the propellant, now a gas, is exhaled unchanged.
In dry powder inhalers, the medicine is in the form of a fine powder which is swept into the lungs as the user breathes in — there is no spray and no spacer.
It’s feasible for many (but not all) people to use either sort of device. Young children do better with metered dose inhalers and spacers, as do people who struggle to inhale. But most asthmatics can inhale well from dry powder inhalers.
Metered dose inhalers are more often prescribed than dry powder devices in many countries, but this has more to do with history and familiarity than effectiveness.
What about those gases?
You might remember hearing, years ago, about “CFCs” — chlorofluorocarbons — and their dire effect on the ozone layer. A successful international treaty, the Montreal Protocol, led to their phase-out from various uses, including medical inhalers. And with that, I thought, the environmental problems of inhaler gases had ended.
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But CFCs were replaced with “HFCs” — hydrofluorocarbons — which are safe for the ozone layer, but which are potent global warming gases. HFCs are better known in their role as refrigerant gases in air conditioners and refrigerators.
A recent amendment to the Montreal Protocol has now planned a phase-out of HFCs, too, but it’s slow, with deadlines decades away. Earlier prudent management of these gases could make a big difference to climate change.
The one most often found in asthma metered dose inhalers, norflurane, is 1,430 times more potent than the best-known warming culprit, carbon dioxide. Another, apaflurane, is 3,220 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
How much pollution are inhaler gases responsible for in Australia? I wrote to several companies marketing asthma inhalers in Australia, asking them how much of these gases are present in their products. Some gave straight answers, but some hedged on grounds of commercial confidentiality. This makes it hard for me to be exact.
But based on some reasonable assumptions, and multiplying these by the number of inhalers dispensed on our Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme last year, I tallied nearly 116,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent pollution.
That’s equivalent to the emissions of about 25,000 cars annually. And this is surely an underestimate, as it doesn’t account for reliever inhalers sold over the counter. A person using a preventer inhaler monthly, plus the odd reliever inhaler, could easily release the annual equivalent of a quarter of a ton of carbon dioxide — that’s like burning 100 litres of petrol.
How to change
The good news is, for many people with asthma, there’s an easy solution: shifting from metered dose inhalers to dry powder inhalers. As above, this won’t suit everyone, but will be possible for many.
I am both a doctor and a person with asthma. As an asthmatic, I’ve found changing inhalers to be easy — if anything, my dry powder inhalers are simpler to use. And as a doctor, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how open my patients have been to this topic. I worried people might find it weird their GP was raising environmental issues at their appointment, but my fears were unfounded.
If you have asthma, a chat with your doctor or pharmacist would be a good way to gauge whether a dry powder inhaler is feasible for you. Don’t be surprised if they haven’t heard of this gas issue — awareness still seems limited.
If metered dose inhalers are a better choice for you, please don’t panic or quit your medicines. These gases probably won’t be the biggest contributor to your personal carbon footprint. Asthma control is really important, and these medicines work really well. But consider changing if it’s an option for you — when it comes to reducing our footprint, every little bit counts.
State governments are poised to renew some of the 20-year-old Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) without reviewing any evidence gathered in the last two decades.
The agreements were first signed between the federal government and the states in the late 1990s in an attempt to balance the needs of the native forest logging industry with conservation and forest biodiversity.
It’s time to renew the agreements for another 20 years. Some, such as Tasmania’s, have just been renewed and others are about to be rolled over without substantial reassessment. Yet much of the data on which the RFAs are based are hopelessly out of date.
Concerns about the validity of the science behind the agreements is shared by some state politicians, with The Guardian reporting the NSW Labor opposition environment spokeswoman as saying “the science underpinning the RFAs is out of date and incomplete”.
New, thorough assessments are needed
What is clearly needed are new, thorough and independent regional assessments that quantify the full range of values of native forests.
Much of the information underpinning these agreements comes largely from the mid-1990s. This was before key issues with climate change began to emerge and the value of carbon storage in native forests was identified; before massive wildfires damaged hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest in eastern Australia; and before the recognition that in some forest types logging operations elevate the risks of crown-scorching wildfires.
The agreements predate the massive droughts and changing climate that have affected the rainfall patterns and water supply systems of southwestern and southeastern Australia, including the forested catchments of Melbourne.
It’s also arguable whether the current Regional Forest Agreements accommodate some of the critical values of native forests. This is because their primary objective is pulp and timber production.
Yet it is increasingly apparent that other economic and social values of native forests are greater than pulp and wood.
To take Victoria as an example, a hectare of intact mountain ash forests produces 12 million litres more water per year than the same amount of logged forest.
The economic value of that water far outstrips the value of the timber: almost all of Melbourne’s water come from these forests. Recent analysis indicates that already more than 60% of the forest in some of Melbourne’s most important catchments has been logged.
The current water supply problems in Cape Town in South Africa are a stark illustration of what can happen when natural assets and environmental infrastructure are not managed appropriately. In the case of the Victorian ash forests, some pundits would argue that the state’s desalination plant can offset the loss of catchment water. But desalination is hugely expensive to taxpayers and generates large amounts of greenhouse emissions.
A declining resource
Another critical issue with the existing agreements is the availability of loggable forest. Past over-harvesting means that much of the loggable forest has already been cut. Remaining sawlog resources are rapidly declining. It would be absurd to sign a 20-year RFA when the amount of sawlog resource remaining is less than 10 years.
This is partially because estimates of sustained yield in the original agreements did not take into account inevitable wood losses in wildfires – akin to a long-distance trucking company operating without accident insurance.
Comprehensive regional assessments must re-examine wood supplies and make significant reductions in pulp and timber yields accordingly.
The inevitable conclusion is that the Regional Forest Agreements and their underlying Comprehensive Regional Assessments are badly out of date. We should not renew them without taking into consideration decades of new information on the value of native forests and on threats to their preservation.
Australia’s native forests are among the nation’s most important natural assets. The Australian public has a right to expect that the most up-to-date information will be used to manage these irreplaceable assets.