Work environments can carry different risks. It’s no secret that exposure to construction-related dust, mold, and animal droppings can lead to the development of multiple conditions. But surprisingly enough, even the cleanest working environments have their own unexpected health risks.

One surprising job with risks to respiratory health is medical surgery. Surgeons may be exposed to different biohazards, but certain procedures like electrocautery can result in surgical plume exposure, which is particularly dangerous for their health. Below we discuss what exactly is surgical plume exposure, what are their effects, and how medical teams can protect themselves. 

What is Surgical Plume Exposure?

Surgical plume or smoke is produced as a result of using electric-powered instruments to cut or cauterize tissue, releasing smoke. These particles tend to produce an unpleasant smell, but they are very hard to see.

The fact that surgical plume exposure is very common doesn’t make it any less dangerous. The smoke released by these instruments contains potentially harmful chemicals, as well as biohazards, putting the health of the medical team at risk.

Effects of Surgical Plume Exposure

Surgical plumes contain different types of toxic aerosols, vapors, and fumes. Exposure to these chemicals can cause irritation in the eyes, nose, and throat, as well as headaches and even vision problems. These symptoms can affect surgeons’ performance, and increase the risk of malpractice lawsuits. It can also have long-term effects, with some evidence suggesting that it’s as dangerous to inhale as cigarette smoke.

The process of cauterizing tissue also means that particles containing bacteria and viruses could be released into the air. The risk for the medical team varies depending on how infectious the patient’s condition is, but studies have shown that surgical plume may contain TB, HIV, and even COVID-19. As a result, experts recommend taking the necessary precautions to minimize exposure.

How to Protect Yourself From Surgical Plume Exposure 

It’s standard practice to wear eye protection, a P2/N95 disposable respirator, and a face shield during an operation, but this might not provide enough protection against the fine aerosols contained in the surgical plumes. The American College of Surgeons (ACS) recommends the use of smoke evacuators in open electrosurgery and laparoscopy equipment. These devices reduce the amount of gas released into the air, preventing exposure.

If repeated exposure to surgical plumes has already taken place, the best course is to check with a professional as soon as the symptoms appear. A certified nurse practitioner trained in advanced pathophysiology is well equipped to provide orientation regarding symptoms of exposure, and how to treat them. Afterwards, it’s recommended to work in a well-ventilated environment for most of the day.

Other Major Occupational Respiratory Diseases

Depending on the working conditions, employees may be exposed to other respiratory risks. Processing hemp and cotton, for example, tends to release a form of dust that can cause shortness of breath, called byssinosis.

Inhaling silica from construction sites, on the other hand, can lead to the development of silicosis, a scarring of the lungs that results in an increased risk of lung cancer. To minimize risks, workplaces often install vacuum systems that can reduce the amount of dust in the air. In addition, using a respirator can be very effective at minimizing chemicals’ inhalation.

While some hazards at the workplace are unavoidable, wearing the right equipment, and working with efficient machinery, can effectively prevent serious lung conditions. The best way to prevent this type of problem — besides proper safety equipment — is to pay attention to any suspicious symptoms, and to see a specialist as soon as possible.

Exclusively written for by: Razilee Jannel

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