• More than 260 million people worldwide have asthma.
  • Traditional inhalers provide instant and long-term relief but emit greenhouse gases.
  • A new generation of greener inhalers is being developed to protect asthmatics and the environment.

Over 260 million people around the world have asthma, and it resulted in more than 460,000 deaths in 2019. But some inhalers, the first-line treatment for the condition, have a problem. Every puff contains greenhouse gases.

So, leading pharmaceutical companies have come up with alternatives that they say are just as effective at tackling asthma – the most common chronic disease in children – without harming the atmosphere.

A map of Asthma prevalence around the world in 2019
More than 260 million people around the world have asthma.
Image: Our World in Data

UK-based GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) says the carbon footprint from 100 puffs of a traditional aerosol metered-dose inhaler (MDI) is the same as that of a 290-kilometre car drive. It’s all because of the fluorinated gases used as “propellants” in this type of inhaler, to help deliver drugs into patients’ lungs.

GSK is instead advocating the use of dry powder inhalers, where the patient sucks in the medication. Emissions from this type of inhaler are 18 times lower than from an MDI, the company says.

A person holding a dry powder inhaler
Dry powder inhalers such as this have emissions 18 times lower than traditional inhalers.
Image: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence

It has been estimated that asthma inhalers account for 3.5% of the carbon emissions of the UK health service. GSK says the UK is over-reliant on MDIs, which account for 70% of all inhaler prescriptions. By contrast, in Sweden MDIs make up just 10% of inhalers in use.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

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The World Economic Forum's Climate Initiative supports the scaling and acceleration of global climate action through public and private-sector collaboration. The Initiative works across several workstreams to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.

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Contact us to get involved.

Choosing the right inhaler

Back in 2019, the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence launched a tool for patients to help them choose an inhaler that’s right for them and the environment.

Now, GSK’s rival AstraZeneca has gone a step further, with plans to market inhalers that use a “near-zero global warming potential propellant”. Developed in partnership with US-based consumer technology firm Honeywell, they say the breakthrough will allow people to use safe MDIs.

The inhalers will use a propellant called HFO-1234ze instead of traditional fluorinated gases, and AstraZeneca says this is 99% less harmful. Early tests on patients show the inhalers are just as effective and cause no adverse effects, the firms say. They aim to launch the product in 2025.

A child holding up a leaf
Saving lives but accelerating climate change? Greener inhalers are on the way.
Image: Unsplash/Alan Rodriguez

Other products releasing greenhouse gases

Asthma inhalers are not the only surprising source of greenhouse gases in our everyday lives. Deodorant sprays have long been targeted as a source of climate-harming emissions, but new materials and gases promise to eliminate this risk.

A collaboration between German company Beiersdorf, the maker of Nivea skincare products, and UK-based Salvalco has led to the development of a new valve that enables aerosol deodorants to use climate-neutral nitrogen as a propellant, rather than hydrocarbon gases.

The same technology is now being used to make environmentally friendly shaving foam.

You may like whipped cream on your coffee, but the can that squirts it onto your drink has also been identified as a source of greenhouse emissions. The UK government, using data from Denmark, says the nitrous oxide propellant in cream sprays is a cause for concern.

Starbucks said in 2020 that adding whipped cream to millions of its drinks was emitting 50 times as much greenhouse gas as the company’s private jet. The company has promised to tackle the problem as part of the Starbucks plan to halve emissions by 2030.

Perhaps the most dramatic proof that changing propellants can save the planet came in 2020 when scientists revealed that the worldwide ban on the use of chlorofluorocarbons – more commonly known as CFCs – has “healed” the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica.