People Who Use Inhalers Aren’t Responsible for the Climate Crisis. Corporations and Governments Are.

Amidst global environmental tragedy, disabled people are the first to be impacted and the last to be considered. Meanwhile, abled environmentalists scapegoat disabled people as the cause of these tragedies. I am an environmentalist and was an aspiring wildlife educator. Three years ago, my health plummeted and I developed asthma, allergies, and other respiratory issues. Through this experience, I have come to realize how ableist most environmental and green trends are. They ignore the isolation and pain we deal with when our environment is made to exclude us. This includes movements to help our planet.

Recently, the BBC published an article on a study that determined that inhalers have a carbon footprint on par with meat consumption. I don’t doubt the study, but it is how the article proceeded that I found appalling. Instead of faulting corporations, drug manufacturers, and other power systems, the article shifts the blame onto inhaler users like me.

Using an inhaler is not a choice. I never planned to rely on a medication that released greenhouse gasses. Yet in order to breathe I must use an inhaler every day. I also rely on a rescue inhaler when air quality is bad, which is a common occurrence in Utah, where I live. Further, I had to find an inhaler that controlled my asthma without having negative interactions with my psychiatric medications. My insurance company has the ultimate say in whether they will approve of a medication and when they do, they choose the cheapest option.

The article then goes on to call out inhaler users on our technique. We need to use our inhalers correctly in order for them to be effective. We know this already. When it comes to using my rescue inhaler, my technique may not always be the best, but thinking clearly is difficult to do when you are not getting enough oxygen to the brain.

The biggest trigger for my asthma attacks is air pollution. The State of the Air report by the American Lung Association found that air pollution has increased in 2017. Ignoring air pollution and faulting inhaler users for the climate crisis is shows a failed understanding of asthma and the respiratory system. Like food, our bodies need clean air in order to efficiently provide oxygen to each of our cells. This is why air pollution has a detrimental impact on our health, including being a major contributor in asthma. And the last thing on my mind when I am struggling to breathe is our environment. All I am thinking about in the doctor’s office as each breath hurts is survival.

Corporations and governments are the largest contributors to air pollution. In 2017, the Carbon Majors Report found that 100 companies are responsible for 71% of greenhouse emissions.  Despite findings like these, the effort to reduce air pollution is placed on individuals instead of power systems. As a teen, I was big on individual effort, but back then riding my bike to appointments didn’t trigger an asthma attack. Now in a sprawling state, the easiest form of transportation that doesn’t give me searing chest pain is my hand-me-down 15-year-old van.

Corporations and governments also have power over the economic restraints of workers. They determine wages and price. Most workers live in poverty and are being denied a living wage. Economic stability impacts health. Due to economic and health restraints, most individuals are unable to make major life changes to reduce their environmental impact. Even if all individuals could change, corporations and governments are still allowed to produce the bulk of pollution.

They also have a say in regulations. Loose regulations expose workers to hazardous working conditions including respiratory irritants. When I worked in land maintenance for my city, I was ill-equipped and poorly trained in herbicide application. This experience has had a permanent negative impact on my respiratory health. Worldwide workers are exposed to hazardous working conditions.

Corporations and governments have control over air pollution not only in the manufacturing process but also in transportation. In Utah, the government is ignoring the will and health of the people by building an inland port. This is being done in part of the state that already deals with horrible wintertime air pollution. Dr. Brian Moench warned that an increase in air pollution of 5% or 10% amount will result in more deaths. The port can easily increase the air pollution by that much. Despite the outrage of several communities and organizations, the Utah government is heeding the will of corporate greed.

Corporations have the power and resources to make their manufacturing and transportation process carbon neutral. This includes drug manufacturers. It should be up to drug manufacturers to make inhalers that are sustainable and accessible to anyone who needs an inhaler. Accessible is crucial because the ‘greener’ dry powder inhalers (DPI’s) are larger and require deeper breathing. Metered dose inhalers (MDIs) are easier and thus crucial to use especially in emergencies. It is obvious to say that breathing is necessary, but that means access to easy tools that help us maintain our oxygen levels are also necessary. For now, this includes the metered dose inhaler.

As someone with a background in ecology, I understand the urgency of the climate crisis. Systemic changes do need to happen to preserve our health and our environment. Yet as someone who is disabled, I know that scapegoating disabled people won’t help anyone, and it most certainly won’t help our planet. We need to hold corporations and governments accountable. We need to push for actions that place people and planet over profits.


Click here to pitch a blog post to Rooted in Rights.

Whitney Lee is an autistic disability rights and mental health advocate. She author's the blog Autistic Observations which focuses on autism, mental health, and chronic illness. She currently works as a research consultant and is assisting her state in policy for young adults with mental health problems.

One response to “People Who Use Inhalers Aren’t Responsible for the Climate Crisis. Corporations and Governments Are.

  1. You are so right. I have asthma all of my life and I am also a conservation professional. So when I read the article about the climate impact of asthma inhalers, I was distressed. So I read a few more articles and learned that yeah, its corporations causing the problem. It’s the propellant in inhalers that has the climate impact, and several years ago, they propellant was changed from CFCs that degrade the ozone layer to HFAs, which happen to be powerful greenhouse gases. BUT not all inhalers use HFA propellants and not all HFAs are equally bad for climate. So, manufacturers of drugs could switch to lower impact propellants, just like they switched from CFCs. As patients, we can also ask our physicians to switch to lower impact inhalers (assuming our insurance covers them). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652619325934

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *