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UH, NASA Glenn Testing New Mask Decontamination Methods

University Hospitals says it currently has a sufficient supply of PPE, and sterilizing masks would be part of a "contingency plan." [Maridav / Shutterstock]
N95 and paper masks on a table

University Hospitals (UH) and the NASA Glenn Research Center are partnering to test out two potential methods for decontaminating disposable masks.

Coronavirus cases are on the rise in Ohio and across Northeast Ohio, including in Cleveland. University Hospitals has enough personal protective equipment on hand for now, said UH Innovation Center Managing Director Kipum Lee.

The decontamination methods are a “contingency plan” in case of a future shortage.

“We did this out of our own necessity to ensure we could have all of the best solutions available to us as we’re going through COVID-19,” Lee said.

One method being tested uses peracetic acid, a chemical disinfectant used in healthcare, food, and water treatment. Tests show the acid is effective for five cycles, according to UH Dr. Shine Raju.

“You’re decontaminating a mask and then you’re wearing it on your face,” Raju said. “There is wear and tear that happens. So to get five uses out of a single mask is, in my opinion, a big deal itself.”

The decontamination takes roughly an hour and 15 minutes each cycle, Raju said. The acid kills spores and bacteria on the mask before degrading into acetic acid, water vapor and oxygen. A single cycle can disinfect between 1,800 and 2,000 masks, he said.

The machine used for peracetic acid cleaning is commercially available, Raju said, and some hospitals already use it to disinfect rooms.

“We decided to give it a shot with peracetic acid, just knowing there was some established data on its safety and its efficacy,” Raju said.

UH is working with the company supplying equipment for the peracetic acid tests to create an application for emergency use approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The second method of decontamination under consideration relies on atomic oxygen, or single oxygen atoms.

“The prototypes we were testing, we have to finesse it out,” Raju said. “The preliminary results are very promising.”

The atomic oxygen method relies on an ozone generator provided by NASA Glenn Research Center. The generator is hooked up to a heated box loosely packed with masks, explained Research Engineer Sharon Miller. As the ozone breaks down, Miller said, oxygen molecules look for something to help them stabilize.

“The virus, like COVID-19, has a fatty outer layer,” Miller said. “When the atomic oxygen reacts with that, it removes the fat. Once you remove the fat, the virus will fall apart.”

The boxes can hold a few hundred masks at a time, Miller said, all of which will be sanitized during the chemical reaction.

“The nice thing about ozone is that it very easily gets around things, and it wants to flow in and around,” Miller said. “You can stack masks or have them in there kind of loosely.”

Atomic oxygen has been used for cleaning in other industries, Miller said.

“We’ve been doing atomic oxygen cleaning for a number of years on artwork and a lot of different things,” Miller said.

The atomic oxygen method will degrade masks over time, Miller said, although UH has not yet determined the number of cycles one mask can handle.