Autoclave sterilization and ethanol treatment of re-used surgical masks and N95 respirators during COVID-19: impact on their performance and integrity.J Hosp Infect. 2020 Aug; 105(4):608-614.JH
An exceptionally high demand for surgical masks and N95 filtering facepiece respirators (FFRs) during the COVID-19 pandemic has considerably exceeded their supply. These disposable devices are generally not approved for routine decontamination and re-use as a standard of care, while this practice has widely occurred in hospitals. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allowed it "as a crisis capacity strategy". However, limited testing was conducted on the impact of specific decontamination methods on the performance of N95 FFRs and no data was presented for surgical masks.
We evaluated common surgical masks and N95 respirators with respect to the changes in their performance and integrity resulting from autoclave sterilization and a 70% ethanol treatment; these methods are frequently utilized for re-used filtering facepieces in hospitals.
The filter collection efficiency and pressure drop were determined for unused masks and N95 FFRs, and for those subjected to the treatments in a variety of ways. The collection efficiency was measured for particles of approximately 0.037-3.2 μm to represent aerosolized single viruses, their agglomerates, bacteria and larger particle carriers.
The initial collection efficiency and the filter breathability may be compromised by sterilization in an autoclave and ethanol treatment. The effect depends on a protective device, particle size, breathing flow rate, type of treatment and other factors. Additionally, physical damages were observed in N95 respirators after autoclaving.
Strategies advocating decontamination and re-use of filtering facepieces in hospitals should be re-assessed considering the data obtained in this study.