Inhalation | Industry Spotlights & Insight Articles

Toward the Next Generation of Sustainable Inhalers

Millions use inhalers to treat pulmonary conditions in the UK. What is their environmental impact, and how can they be improved for a sustainable future?

As COP28 draws to a close, nations and manufacturers alike are once again drawing their attention to ways of reducing their carbon footprint.

Among the many sources of greenhouse gas that the pharmaceutical industry is trying to tame is the use of inhaled medicines, which unlike the direct emissions of the drug manufacturing sectors, intersects with public health and patient behaviour.

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According to the NHS, while inhalers are a key treatment for patients with pulmonary issues, emissions from the use of these devices make up as much as 3% of the Health Service’s carbon footprint. The culprit for this surprising figure is chiefly due to the propellant used in metered dose inhalers.

In November, GSK announced that it planned to begin late-stage clinical trials of a carbon conscious version of its inhaler Ventolin, which is used to treat chronic pulmonary conditions like COPD and asthma. Reducing the metered dose inhaler’s CO2 emissions is its next generation propellant, which GSK claims could produce 90% less greenhouse gas than its current formulation.

Although metered dose inhalers no longer use chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as their propellant after they were banned for their role in depleting the ozone layer, the switch to hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) still antagonises the greenhouse effect.

Another option for increasing the sustainability of inhaled therapies is swapping delivery methods to dry powder inhalers, rather than metered dose formulations. As reported by the British Medical Journal, for people who regularly use asthma inhalers, making the switch could slash their carbon footprint from the product by over 50%.

Quoting Professor Ashley Woodcock of the Royal College of Physicians, the BMJ report says: “Each puff of a [metered dose inhaler] is equivalent to driving 1 mile in a family car, so one inhaler is close to driving 200 miles… but a powdered inhaler is about a twentieth of that.”

However, one issue that could stunt the adoption of dry powder inhalers is their availability. The UK currently lags behind the rest of Europe in its use of dry powder inhalers over metered dose inhalers.

To encourage the adoption of greener inhalers, South England Greener NHS launched a video campaign to promote the switch in September of this year. Along with explaining the new inhalers’ benefits for the planet, the videos also emphasise the improved ease-of-use of dry powder formulations. These benefits include better induction of spray, less complex priming, more clear feedback for a successful puff, and a readout for the number of doses left in the canister.

For those that cannot or still do not want to switch to dry powder, the metered dose option is still available, and GSKs efforts to introduce a greener propellant may curtail greenhouse gas emissions from this demographic.

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