As hazardous smoke seeps past the radar in operating rooms, a local hospital works toward change

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LEE'S SUMMIT, Mo. -- Surgeons and nurses take measures, all the time, to protect patients and themselves with different products, but there's one hazardous byproduct that has seeped past their radar -- surgical smoke.

Now, a metro hospital is working to change that.

Smoking cigarettes on airplanes was banned 30 years ago. We all know it's because of the harmful effects on our bodies.

Surprisingly enough though, people in health care are now dealing with similar hazardous exposure in operating rooms.

St. Luke's East Hospital is leading the way to change their tools and technology to make an even safer environment for staff and you, the patient, during procedures.

Nurses are pushing for smoke-free operating rooms -- opening the door to research regarding the dangers of surgical smoke.

"We decided that even if we may not be able to do everything, we're going to start somewhere. We're going to make our patients and our staff safe," said Laura Spaw, a clinical resource nurse at St. Luke’s East.

Spaw led a project at St. Luke's East that turned the light on educating doctors and nurses -- with decades of experience and, unfortunately, exposure -- on the harm of surgical smoke.

"There have been some nasty things found in surgical smoke," said Nick Meginnis, brand manager of Stryker Corp. "There are over 150 different types of chemicals in smoke, 16 of which are on the EPA priority pollutant list."

Meginnis offers a product that evacuates surgical smoke.

"Bottom line: Surgical smoke is burning flesh," Meginnis said.

He demonstrated just how how much smoke a pen produces in only 30-60 seconds using a steak and cautery pen used in about 85% of procedures across the nation.

Meginnis said the smoke put out in an operating room every day is equivalent to smoking up to 30 unfiltered cigarettes. Stryker's tool works against that.

"So it evacuates surgical smoke directly at the surgical site before anybody in the room can be exposed to the hazardous smoke," Meginnis said.

Right now, only two states in the country, Colorado and Rhode Island, have laws requiring smoke evacuation from operating rooms -- and those have been added in the past 18 months.

"I think that definitely helps put pressure on the hospitals all across Missouri and Kansas to be able to make that change for the good," said Whitney Huddleston, surgical services nurse manager at St. Luke’s East Hospital.

Spaw said another thing that puts the pressure on the hospitals: seeing colleagues struggle. She blames surgical smoke.

"I have been around surgeons who have experienced the harmful affects," Spaw said. "Surgical nurses are known to have a higher incident of respiratory problems and there can be, like I said, cancerous links to the surgical smoke because you are using it on human tissue."

She, herself, battled cancer last year. Although it wasn't due to surgical smoke, Spaw said if there's a way to prevent any kind of cancer, then she's going to fight to educate and implement it.

"If you can make a difference and eliminate that risk -- do it!" Spaw said.

Huddleston said St. Luke's is not completely smoke free but is headed in that direction as a system. She noted the difficulties in coordinating with operating rooms and procedural areas that would produce smoke.

St. Luke's has received the "Go Clear" gold award from a national nurse's group for its smoke evacuation initiative. They're the only hospital in the metro area to receive that recognition.

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