New system decontaminates thousands of face masks each day

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TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT) — Personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers is still very limited. But an FDA-approved decontamination system is helping to make that equipment last a little longer.

The Battelle decontamination system uses concentrated, vapor phase hydrogen peroxide to decontaminate N95 face masks.

“We did a study a couple of years ago that suggested that this process that we’re implementing here…was an effective way of dealing with these types of viruses,” explained Mark Curran, Program Manager with Battelle. “Fast forward a couple of years and the pandemic hit. Some of our smart people got together and figured out a way to scale that up.”

The system can decontaminate up to 20,000 face masks per day. Kansas has four decontamination units, meaning up to 80,000 health care worker’s face masks can be cleaned and then reused.

Health care facilities collect used masks and label then double bag each mask. The masks are then put into a box to be sent to the decontamination unit located on the Kansas National Guard base in Topeka. Once the boxes of masks arrive to be decontaminated, trained staff put on extensive PPE to load the masks in to the system.

Workers load contaminated masks into the Battelle system

After the masks are placed in the system, the interior door is tightly sealed with caulk to prevent any cross contamination. Once staff are finished, they take off their protective equipment and immediately shower. Typically, the masks take a few hours to be fully decontaminated. They are then double bagged, put in a clean box and sent back to the health care facility.

Staff wear full personal protective equipment when working with the Battelle system

“The whole process has been very well quality controlled to make sure that there’s no exposure to anything that’s contaminated,” said Curran.

An N95 mask can be decontaminated up to 20 times and still be safe to wear, according to Curran. From the time the boxes of contaminated masks arrive to when the newly decontaminated mask leave the facility is, at the most, 72 hours.

“The Battelle system is incredibly important because we want to be smart with the equipment that we do have and if we have a way to extend the life of certain pieces of equipment, like N95 masks, we want to do that,” said Paul Taylor, Regional Administrator, FEMA.

While the Battelle system is helping get clean masks to frontline workers, representatives from FEMA say they are still working to send new PPE out.

“We use commercial air carriers, provided by FEMA, to bring millions of pieces of PPE into the country every single day to distribute to the most impacted areas,” said Taylor. “To places that are having problems, like meat-packing facilities, like nursing homes and elderly care facilities, like prisons, for example.”

Contaminated masks are lined up in the Battelle system to be cleaned

The Battelle systems are being provided to Kansas by the Federal Government. According to Taylor, the decontamination units will stay for as long as they are needed.

Battelle staff work to decontaminate masks

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