Environmental and Occupational Considerations of Anesthesia: A Narrative Review and Update

Anesth Analg. 2021 Oct 1;133(4):826-835. doi: 10.1213/ANE.0000000000005504.


With an estimated worldwide volume of 266 million surgeries in 2015, the call for general inhalation anesthesia is considerable. However, widely used volatile anesthetics such as N2O and the highly fluorinated gases sevoflurane, desflurane, and isoflurane are greenhouse gases, ozone-depleting agents, or both. Because these agents undergo minimal metabolism in the body during clinical use and are primarily (≥95%) eliminated unchanged via exhalation, waste anesthetic gases (WAGs) in operating rooms and postanesthesia care units can pose a challenge for overall elimination and occupational exposure. The chemical properties and global warming impacts of these gases vary, with atmospheric lifetimes of 1-5 years for sevoflurane, 3-6 years for isoflurane, 9-21 years for desflurane, and 114 years for N2O. Additionally, the use of N2O as a carrier gas for the inhalation anesthetics and as a supplement to intravenous (IV) anesthetics further contributes to these impacts. At the same time, unscavenged WAGs can result in chronic occupational exposure of health care workers to potential associated adverse health effects. Few adverse effects associated with WAGs have been documented, however, when workplace exposure limits are implemented. Specific measures that can help reduce occupational exposure and the environmental impact of inhaled anesthetics include efficient ventilation and scavenging systems, regular monitoring of airborne concentrations of waste gases to remain below recommended limits, ensuring that anesthesia equipment is well maintained, avoiding desflurane and N2O if possible, and minimizing fresh gas flow rates (eg, use of low-flow anesthesia). One alternative to volatile anesthetics may be total intravenous anesthesia (TIVA). While TIVA is not associated with the risks of occupational exposure or atmospheric pollution that are inherent to volatile anesthetic gases, clinical considerations should be weighed in the choice of agent. Appropriate procedures for the disposal of IV anesthetics must be followed to minimize any potential for negative environmental effects. Overall, although their contributions are relatively low compared with those of other human-produced substances, inhaled anesthetics are intrinsically potent greenhouse gases and pose a risk to operating-room personnel if not properly managed and scavenged. Factors to reduce waste and minimize the future impact of these substances should be considered.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants, Occupational / adverse effects*
  • Anesthesia, Inhalation / adverse effects*
  • Anesthetics, Inhalation / administration & dosage
  • Anesthetics, Inhalation / adverse effects*
  • Animals
  • Conservation of Natural Resources
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Global Warming*
  • Greenhouse Effect*
  • Greenhouse Gases / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Medical Waste
  • Medical Waste Disposal
  • Occupational Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Occupational Exposure / prevention & control
  • Occupational Health
  • Ozone Depletion*
  • Risk Assessment
  • Risk Factors


  • Air Pollutants, Occupational
  • Anesthetics, Inhalation
  • Greenhouse Gases
  • Medical Waste
  • Medical Waste Disposal