How Duke Hospital found a way to recycle PPE for repeated use

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Back in the spring, the search for PPE was perhaps as stressful as the search for TP.

Fortunately for most households, paper products are back on the shelves. For hospitals, however, personal protective equipment, such as N95 masks remain a critical, if not endangered, resource.

"It is the appropriate level of respiratory protection from this virus," Dr. Matthew Stiegel, Duke Health's Director of Occupational and Environmental Safety, said of the masks. "We don't have any ability to pick something that wouldn't provide that level of protection."

Shortages of PPE, in fact, have plagued almost every county in every state across the country, leaving local governments, first responder agencies and health care facilities competing with each other and the entire world in their quest to keep their workers safe.

This summer, Stiegel's team ordered and reviewed nearly 150 products from vendors across the country and world, and he lamented that only a few were adequate enough to purchase in bulk. Simultaneously, though, Duke researchers sought ways to decontaminate and repurpose the existing PPE to serve dual purposes of conserving resources and reducing waste.

The end result is an FDA Emergency Use Authorization for a groundbreaking system that recycles as many as 5,000 N95 masks a day through a hydrogen peroxide vapor. The exposure to the vapor is only a few hours, but the total turnaround time is around a week.

"We have to assure the masks are dry, we have to assure there's no hydrogen peroxide vapor in those masks," Stiegel explained. "Then they go through a qualitative check to make sure there aren't any holes and the straps are in check."

The EUA allows for masks to be recycled up to 10 times, and Stiegel said Duke is now looking into how to apply the same process for other forms of PPE.

"Across the board that would be good news," he said.
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