We have studied 51 patients who were allocated randomly and prospectively to receive either 100% oxygen (n = 16), 70% nitrous oxide in oxygen (n = 18) or 30% oxygen in nitrogen (n = 17) as the inspired gas during anaesthesia for abdominal hysterectomy. Lung volumes were measured before and after surgery. TLC, VC, FVC and FEV1 but not RV or FRC were reduced after surgery. There were no significant differences between the three treatment groups in any of the lung volumes measured. We conclude that absorption atelectasis during anaesthesia is not the main cause of perioperative changes in lung volume after abdominal hysterectomy. Any effect of the inspired gas is likely to be of limited clinical significance.