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Is nitrous oxide a climate risk? Yes, but doctors say effective pain relief in childbirth should be the priority

Greenpeace and obstetricians have questioned a scientific report warning pregnant women to consider alternatives to nitrous oxide as pain relief during childbirth because of the environmental impact of its emissions.

A report in Australasian Anaesthesia notes that while nitrous oxide – known as laughing gas when used as an anaesthetic – is an effective method of pain relief during labour, the gas represents 7% of global emissions, according to the World Meteorological Organization. 

Using nitrous oxide as pain relief during a four-hour labour creates a carbon footprint equivalent to driving an average car for 1,500km, the report’s authors found, whereas an epidural is equivalent to driving 6km.

The report explores methods to capture and destroy waste from the nitrous oxide, and suggests that pregnant women consider alternatives, such as epidurals, as well as acupuncture, massaging and hypnobirthing to manage their pain during labour.

“While it may be innocuous for the pregnant woman and unborn baby, that is certainly not the case for the environment,” the report states, noting its use should ultimately continue in some capacity due to its convenience and safety.

A Greenpeace spokesperson said that the health sector accounts for about 7% of Australia’s emissions, and that while it was important for all industries to assess their climate impact, the focus should be on the worst polluters such as the energy sector.

Associate Prof Gino Pecoraro, president of Australia’s National Association of Specialist Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said that while some pregnant women might be concerned about the environmental impact of their childbirth, alternative pain relief such as epidurals are not available at every hospital, especially outside of capital cities.

He added that nitrous oxide can be a more attractive pain relief option as it doesn’t restrict walking or movement ability to the extent epidurals do.

“If you’re in rip-roaring pain during labour, carbon footprint might not be the thing you most want to discuss,” Pecoraro said. 

Pecoraro said that ultimately it was important to offer as many different options for pain relief during labour as possible, as different methods are effective for different women.

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Source: The Guardian, 31 May 2022


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