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Originally published Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 7:03 PM

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Anesthesiologists try to lower their carbon footprint

If every doctor at a midsize hospital picked the gas with the least impact, anesthesia emissions would equal the greenhouse gas impact of about 100 passenger cars each year, researcher says.

Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — People facing surgery probably aren't thinking about the procedure's global warming impact — but some of their doctors are.

The choices that anesthesiologists make at a midsize hospital can have the carbon footprint of a small fleet of automobiles, according to a physician who calculated the effects of different options.

"Changes people could make in their practice right away" could improve the health of the community and the planet, said Susan M. Ryan, a clinical professor of anesthesiology at the University of California, San Francisco.

Ryan co-authored an article on environmentally friendlier anesthesia in this month's edition of Anesthesia & Analgesia, a scholarly journal.

She and other doctors cautioned that patient safety always should come first. Once that's said, though, "most physicians are ... very concerned about the environment," said Dr. Joseph Antognini, a professor of anesthesiology at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine.

At UC Davis Medical Center, most doctors already use sevoflurane, the inhaled anesthesia that Ryan calculated has the smallest carbon footprint, Antognini said.

That wasn't an environmental choice, though. He and his colleagues often prefer it because it tends to irritate the airways less than desflurane, another commonly used anesthesia that Ryan found has the biggest footprint.

Each case is different, Antognini stressed. Heavier people may do better with one anesthetic, and children with another.

"Hardly anyone I can imagine is going to make a choice of one anesthetic over another based on global warming," he said, although it's a good conversation for doctors to have.

Ryan analyzed three inhaled gases that are the most common choices in operating rooms in Europe and North America. After patients inhale them, those anesthetics as well as other gases used to dilute them are usually vented outside the hospital. Some are potent greenhouse gases that can contribute to global warming for decades.

If every doctor at a midsize hospital picked the gas with the least impact, the anesthesia emissions would equal the greenhouse gas impact of about 100 passenger cars each year, she calculated.

If every doctor picked the most environmentally damaging anesthetic, greenhouse emissions would be roughly 12 times higher, equivalent to a 1,200-car fleet, she wrote.

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While those are small numbers compared with other sources of greenhouse gases, even small changes count, Ryan said.

(Contact Sacramento Bee reporter Carrie Peyton Dahlberg at cpeytondahlberg@sacbee.com.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)

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