Surgical Smoke Inhalation: Dangerous Consequences for the Surgical Team

Posted on by Mary J. Ogg, MSN, RN, CNOR

In 1996, after conducing multiple health hazard evaluations, NIOSH released a bulletin recommending the control of surgical smoke created during laser or electric surgical procedures. Since the 1990s the Association of Perioperative Registered Nurses (AORN) has recommended the evacuation of all surgical smoke. Yet, surgical smoke is still inhaled daily by nurses in the operating room. In a 2016 study, NIOSH surveyed health care personnel who were exposed to surgical smoke.  Their results indicated that of respondents who worked within five feet of the source of surgical smoke only 14% reported that it was evacuated during electrosurgery and 47% during laser surgery (Steege et al.).

During surgical procedures, smoke is produced when energy generating devices such as lasers or electrosurgical units also known as cautery are used to stop bleeding or incise tissue. The energy generating devices raise the intracellular temperature to boiling (i.e., 100° C /212° F). At these high temperatures the tissue vaporizes producing surgical smoke. The smoke is often not visible and has an unpleasant odor. The smoke may contain ultra-fine particles, toxic compounds (e.g., benzene, toluene, hydrogen cyanide), viruses (e.g., human papilloma virus [HPV]), and cancer cells (Guideline for Surgical Smoke Safety).


Chemical Contents of Surgical Smoke
Acetonitrile Acetylene Acroloin Acrylonitrile Alkyl benzene
Benzaldehyde Benzene Benzonitrile Butadiene Butene
3-Butenenitrile Carbon monoxide Creosol 1-Decene 2,3-Dihydro indene
Ethane Ethyl benzene Ethylene Formaldehyde Furfural
Hexadecanoic acid Hydrogen cyanide Indole Methane 3-Methyl butenal
6-Methyl indole 4-Methyl phenol 2-Methyl propanol Methyl pyrazine Phenol
Propene 2-Propylene nitrile Pyridine Pyrrole Styrene
Toluene 1-Undecene Xylene

Used with permissionUlmer BC. The hazards of surgical smoke. AORN J. 2008;87(4):721-734.


Inhaling surgical smoke may be hazardous to anyone breathing it in including the patient and all members of the surgical team—nurses, doctors, and technologists. The Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) has estimated that more than half a million heath care workers are exposed to surgical smoke every year. Repeated exposure to the contents of surgical smoke may be cumulative and increases the possibility of developing adverse health effects (Alp et al.). At high concentrations the smoke causes eye and upper respiratory tract irritation in health care personnel and creates visual problems for the surgeon. The smoke also has the potential to cause gene mutation.

AORN is leading legislative efforts for surgical smoke-free operating rooms across the United States. Rhode Island and Colorado became the first U.S. states to require surgical smoke evacuation policies by law.


Mary J. Ogg, MSN, RN, CNOR, is a Senior Perioperative Practice Specialist with the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses (AORN).


This blog is part of a series hosted by NIOSH to commemorate nurses during the Year of the Nurse. The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect the views of CDC or NIOSH.

Other blogs in the series include:

Year of the Nurse

Managing Fatigue During Times of Crisis: Guidance for Nurses, Managers, and Other Healthcare Workers

Nurses’ and Other Health Professionals’ Wellness and Safety Resource Update

Safety Culture and Health Care

Work Ability among Older Nurses

The Unique Occupational Environment of the Home Healthcare Worker

Can Exoskeletons Reduce Musculoskeletal Disorders in Healthcare Workers?

Preventing Needlesticks and Sharps Injuries: Reflecting on the 20th Anniversary of the Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act

Celebrating Nurses

Posted on by Mary J. Ogg, MSN, RN, CNOR

4 comments on “Surgical Smoke Inhalation: Dangerous Consequences for the Surgical Team”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    Is there any update on when NJ OSHA is going to make it a regulation that the closed suction system for fluid and smoke in the OR?

    Hi Laura, there is legislation in New Jersey to ensure surgical smoke evacuation. Assembly Bill 3982 was introduced in May 2020 and carries over for consideration this year. The next step in the process would be when the bill is posted to the NJ Assembly Health Committee.

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Page last reviewed: December 15, 2020
Page last updated: December 15, 2020