Special article: general anesthetic gases and the global environment

Anesth Analg. 2011 Jan;112(1):213-7. doi: 10.1213/ANE.0b013e3181fe02c2. Epub 2010 Nov 3.


General anesthetics are administered to approximately 50 million patients each year in the United States. Anesthetic vapors and gases are also widely used in dentists' offices, veterinary clinics, and laboratories for animal research. All the volatile anesthetics that are currently used are halogenated compounds destructive to the ozone layer. These halogenated anesthetics could have potential significant impact on global warming. The widely used anesthetic gas nitrous oxide is a known greenhouse gas as well as an important ozone-depleting gas. These anesthetic gases and vapors are primarily eliminated through exhalation without being metabolized in the body, and most anesthesia systems transfer these gases as waste directly and unchanged into the atmosphere. Little consideration has been given to the ecotoxicological properties of gaseous general anesthetics. Our estimation using the most recent consumption data indicates that the anesthetic use of nitrous oxide contributes 3.0% of the total emissions in the United States. Studies suggest that the influence of halogenated anesthetics on global warming will be of increasing relative importance given the decreasing level of chlorofluorocarbons globally. Despite these nonnegligible pollutant effects of the anesthetics, no data on the production or emission of these gases and vapors are publicly available. The primary goal of this article is to critically review the current data on the potential effects of general anesthetics on the global environment and to describe possible alternatives and new technologies that may prevent these gases from being discharged into the atmosphere.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anesthetics, General / adverse effects
  • Anesthetics, General / pharmacokinetics
  • Anesthetics, Inhalation / adverse effects*
  • Anesthetics, Inhalation / pharmacokinetics
  • Animals
  • Atmosphere / chemistry
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects
  • Environmental Exposure / prevention & control*
  • Global Warming / prevention & control*
  • Humans


  • Anesthetics, General
  • Anesthetics, Inhalation