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UMass researchers find medical-grade masks can be sterilized, reused

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst researcher Richard Peltier tested the safety of reused N95 face masks by placing a mannequin wearing a face mask in a chamber filled with pollutants and analyzing the air inside of the mask. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/UMASS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/29/2020 6:31:57 PM

AMHERST — As COVID-19 cases rise and worries mount over shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers, a University of Massachusetts researcher has found evidence that essential N95 respirator masks can be safely reused after sterilization.

Richard Peltier, a professor in the UMass School of Public Health and Health Sciences, said that results found at his UMass lab found “no meaningful difference” between a new mask and a mask sterilized with hydrogen peroxide.

Working with Brian Hollenbeck, chief of infectious disease at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston, Peltier tested the N95 masks by placing a mannequin wearing the mask inside a chamber that was flooded with pollutants. Using a small tube, the researchers analyzed the air within the mask to see how many polluted particles had passed through.

“It gives us some confidence that these masks are generally unaffected by the sterilization process,” Peltier said, noting that some were concerned the material used to make the masks would degrade when sterilized.

The N95 mask is a filtering device that fits over a wearer's nose and mouth and helps to protect wearers from infectious liquid and airborne particles. The masks play an instrumental role in keeping health care workers safe from the COVID-19 virus, which also enhances patient safety.

The researchers used one set of face masks, meaning that the results only definitively apply to that particular make and model — in this case, 3M 1860S masks — and the hydrogen peroxide sterilization technique. Additionally, the test would normally be repeated numerous times to confirm results. But based on the limited supplies that the Boston hospital could spare, results are promising.

“It’s one small blip in the research world, but it’s a good one,” Peltier said, “and it’s one of the few positive ones that we can talk about in public health.”

Research opportunities are also limited by the university’s vastly reduced campus operations, Peltier said, but the researchers eventually hope to answer how many times a mask can be reused and if other sterilization techniques show similar results.

The researchers took on the “hot potato project” on Wednesday, just two days before sharing results — a testament to the rapidly-evolving nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, Peltier said, noting, “that’s how fast this turned.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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