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The low solubility of desflurane in blood and tissues suggests that the partial pressures of this agent in blood and tissues should approach the inspired partial pressure more rapidly than would the blood and tissue partial pressures of other potent inhaled anesthetics. We tested this prediction, comparing the pharmacokinetics of desflurane with those of isoflurane, halothane, and nitrous oxide in eight volunteers. We measured the rate at which the alveolar (end-tidal) (FA) concentration of nitrous oxide increased towards an inspired (FI) concentration of 65–70%, and then measured the concurrent increase in FA and mixed expired concentrations (FM) of desflurane, isoflurane, and halothane at respective FI values of 2.0%, 0.4%, 0.2%. Minute ventilation (Ve) was measured concurrently with the measurements of anesthetic concentrations. The potent vapors were administered for 30 min; administration of nitrous oxide continued throughout the period of anesthesia. For the potent agents, we also measured VE, FA, and FM for 5–7 days of elimination. We used FA/FI and FA/FA0 (FA0 = the last FA during the administration of each anesthetic) to define the rate of increase of anesthetic in the lungs and the rate of elimination of anesthetic, respectively. FA/FI values at 30 min of administration were: (mean ± SD) nitrous oxide 0.99 ± 0.01, desflurane 0.90 ± 0.01, isoflurane 0.73 ± 0.03, and halothane 0.58 ± 0.04. FA/FA0 values after 5 min of elimination were: desflurane 0.14 ± 0.02, isoflurane 0.22 ± 0.02, and halothane 0.25 ± 0.02. Recovery (volume of anesthetic recovered during elimination per volume taken up) of desflurane (105 ± 25%) equalled recovery of isoflurane (102 ± 13%) and exceeded recovery of halothane (64 ± 9%). Time constants for a five-compartment mammillary model for halothane and isoflurane differed for the lungs, fat group, and hepatic metabolism, and exceeded those for desflurane for all compartments. In summary, we found that FA/FI of desflurane increases more rapidly and that FA/FA0 decreases more rapidly in humans than do these variables with other available potent anesthetics. We also found that desflurane resists biodegradation in humans and so may have little or no toxic potential.