May 5, 2020
The National Science Foundation has awarded an $85,000 fast-track grant to Associate Professor of Environmental Health Sciences Richard Peltier to expand his research into whether face masks can be safely reused by COVID-19 pandemic medical workers after repeated sterilizations.
The demand for medical face masks, known as N95 masks, continues to outstrip the supply available to health care organizations across the world, putting doctors, nurses and others at risk for becoming infected with and spreading the novel coronavirus.
In light of the equipment shortage, Peltier conducted urgent research on face masks in March in partnership with New England Baptist Hospital in Boston. Initial results in his lab suggested N95 face masks were still effective at blocking infectious particles after a single sterilization with hydrogen peroxide.
The new grant will allow Peltier to obtain masks that have been sterilized by different processes as controversy swirls around whether it’s safe to reuse decontaminated masks as many as 20 or even 30 times, as some equipment processors have suggested.
“These masks are really important protective equipment for medical workers who place themselves in harm’s way, and they are not designed to be sterilized over and over again,” says Peltier, who has been interviewed widely by regional and national media about this crucial safety concern among medical providers.
While a National Institutes of Health study suggested that sterilizing and reusing face masks three times was safe, Ohio company Battelle Memorial Institute has received FDA approval to decontaminate masks with a vaporized hydrogen peroxide process for reuse up to 20 times. The Battelle process is being used at a site outside Boston hosted by Partners HealthCare to sterilize thousands of face masks for reuse every day. Partners HealthCare runs Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and Cooley-Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, among other health care centers.
Peltier will test masks that have been sterilized with ultraviolet radiation, as well as by the process Battelle is using. “We have to have convincing data to be confident that these masks will withstand sterilization and continue to work as they were designed,” Peltier says.
Mask testing is already under way in Peltier’s lab, where he uses state-of-the-art pollution instruments and a mannequin head to measure whether microscopic particles can pass through the masks after they are sterilized.
He plans to publicly release draft results as soon as they are available because of the potential impact on public health during the pandemic.
“We’re asking our medical workers to confront this virus at their own peril, and the least we can do is provide working safety equipment,” Peltier says. “They deserve to be protected.”