Decontamination of N95 Masks May Reduce Pandemic Waste, Study Says

Until the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the use of PFF2 (or N95, the American standard) face shields was almost entirely restricted to healthcare professionals. With the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, face masks became part of our daily lives.

The demand for professional masks, such as disposable PFF2 and N95, became very high, and consequently the waste generated by this use grew. Now, researchers are looking for a way to reduce the impacts of these residues on the environment.

Disposable KN95 MaskSource: Markus Winkler/Unsplash

The pandemic is estimated to be generating up to 7,200 tons of medical waste around the world every day — largely disposable masks. Even if the pandemic slows down, healthcare professionals should continue to wear masks most of the time.

Recent studies show that the use of masks, the physical distance between people, good ventilation of the environments and hand hygiene can reduce (a lot!) the transmission of the coronavirus.

But what do we do with garbage? According to a new MIT study, published this month in the scientific journal BMJ, waste could be drastically reduced with the adoption of sterile reusable masks.

Decontaminating N95 masks so that caregivers can wear them for more than a day reduces costs and environmental damage by at least 75% compared to using a new mask for every patient encounter.

“Perhaps unsurprisingly, approaches that incorporate reusable features represent not only the greatest cost savings, but also a significant reduction in waste,” said Giovanni Traverso, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, gastroenterologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts and senior author of the study, in a press release.

Jacqueline Chu, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital, is the lead author of the study, which also found that fully reusable N95 silicone masks can offer an even greater reduction in waste.

Reduce and reuse masks

Last year, Traverso and the team began developing a reusable N95 mask made of silicone that contains an N95 filter that can be discarded or sterilized after use. These masks are designed so that they can be sterilized with heat or bleach and reused over and over again, but they are not yet commercially available.

“Our vision was that if we had a reusable system, we could reduce the cost. Most disposable masks also have a significant environmental impact and take a long time to degrade. During a pandemic, protecting people from the virus is a priority and that remains a priority, but in the long run, we have to catch up and do the right thing, and strongly consider and minimize the potential negative impact on the environment,” he said. the teacher.

Masks and their disposal: an environmental problem

The MIT team decided to model the impacts of mask use in various scenarios, which spanned patterns of use before and during the pandemic, including: an N95 mask per patient contact; one N95 mask per day; reuse of N95 masks through ultraviolet decontamination; reuse of N95 masks by hydrogen peroxide sterilization and one surgical mask per day.

disposable masksSource: Freepik

They also modeled the potential cost and waste generated by the reusable silicone mask being developed by the team and could be used with disposable or reusable N95 filters.

According to the analysis, if every healthcare professional in the United States wore a new N95 mask for every patient within six months, the total number of masks needed would be about 7.4 billion, which would cost 6.4 billion dollars. and would generate 84 million kilos of waste (the equivalent of 252 Boeing 747 aircraft).

On the other hand, any strategy with reusable masks would lead to a significant reduction in costs and waste generated. If every healthcare provider reused N95 masks decontaminated with hydrogen peroxide or ultraviolet light, the costs would drop to about $1.5 billion, resulting in 13 to 18 million pounds of waste (equivalent to something between 39 and 56 planes 747).

The numbers could be further reduced with a reusable N95 silicone mask — especially if the filters were reusable. In six months, the mask could reduce costs to just $18 million and waste to 1.6 million kilos (about 2.5 Boeing 747).

“Masks are here to stay in the near future, so it’s critical that we incorporate sustainability into their use, as well as the use of other disposable personal protective equipment that contributes to hospital waste,” Chu said. Survey calculations do not include the use of masks by the general public.

Article BMJ: It hurts: 10.1136/bmjopen-2021-048687

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