Respiratory protection Health Care Workers

Sterilization process allows for safe reuse of N95 respirators, researchers say

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Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Durham, NC — In an effort to preserve the supply of N95 filtering facepiece respirators used by health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers at Duke Health say they have successfully tested a decontamination process that allows the masks to be reused safely.

According to a March 26 press release, research and clinical teams at the health system are using a process in which hydrogen peroxide is vaporized by specialized equipment. This vapor penetrates the layers of the mask to kill germs – including viruses – without degrading the mask material.

“This is a decontamination technology and method we’ve used for years in our biocontainment laboratory,” Scott Alderman, associate director of the Regional Biocontainment Laboratory at Duke University, said in the release.

Matthew Stiegel, director of the Occupational and Environmental Safety Office at Duke Health, said the use of this technology on personal protective equipment used to help protect health care workers from exposure to COVID-19 was a new consideration.

“We had never considered needing it for something like facemasks,” Stiegel said. “But we’ve now proven that it works and will begin using the technology immediately in all three Duke Health hospitals.”

 

This sterilization process has been studied by numerous researchers since 2016, but has not gained widespread adoption. Most recently, University of Massachusetts Amherst health scientist Richard Peltier tested the process by comparing a new mask with a sterilized one using a mannequin that “breathes in” air particles that are the same size as the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. He found no difference in the performance of the two masks, according to a March 27 report published on New England Public Radio’s website.

Duke University Health System Vice President Monte Brown and his team are working to raise awareness of the process. Brown noted that some health systems and pharmaceutical companies already have the necessary equipment and can serve as resources to help nearby hospitals experiencing a shortage of N95 facemasks.

“While this alone will not solve the problem,” Brown said, “if we and others can reuse masks even once or twice, that would be a huge benefit given the current shortages.”

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