The Risks of Anesthesia: How Prolonged Exposure is Affecting Operating Room Personnel

By: Amanda Rubin  |  October 2, 2016

amanda-rubinInhalation of anesthesia or anesthetic gases is the biggest occupational risk affecting operating room personnel. Waste anesthetic gases are defined as gases and vapors that leak during medical procedures and permeate the room. Prolonged exposure to these gases has been linked to genetic abnormalities and damage, which result in adverse health effects for a person who has been subjected to these gases. In addition, prolonged exposure has been implicated in spontaneous abortions and negative effects on the cognitive, motor and behavioral effects of children born to OR personnel.


Operating room procedures generally involve rendering a patient unconscious by administering anesthesia. Because it is administered in the gaseous state, anesthetic fumes are released into the room and are easily inhaled by the anesthesiologists, surgeons, scrub nurses and other OR personnel. Additionally, fumes can leak from their containers and increase exposure. In the late 1960s through the 1970s, awareness of the detrimental genotoxic effects of continuous exposure to anesthesia arose. Studies of U.S. and European OR personnel showed an increase in adverse health effects and genetic damage that correlated to continued subjection to these gases. Recommendations were then made by researchers to diminish exposure. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) established threshold values of exposure based on research that showed that the dangers of anesthesia inhalation were only detrimental at high levels, and low level exposure was not harmful.

By establishing these safety precautions, NIOSH hoped to lower the health risks accompanying a profession in operating rooms. However, when they established these limitations the inspectors only took into account the anesthesia that was leaked into the room from its containers or was administered to the patient. When incidences of adverse health effects failed to decline, further investigation was done and researchers discovered that they had missed a major source that was releasing anesthesia into the work environment. Post-operative patients in recovery exhale copious amounts of anesthesia which the nurses tending to them inhale. As a result, postoperative care unit personnel were exposed to anesthesia levels far above the established threshold values, and so NIOSH once again was forced to readjust them. While working in an OR can be a very rewarding profession, one must carefully consider the risks before entering this field of occupation.