Duke Health researchers find way to decontaminate N95 face masks for reuse

<p>An N95 mask.</p>

An N95 mask.

Facing a nationwide shortage of N95 face masks in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Duke Health researchers have successfully found a way to decontaminate masks so that they may be reused.

N95 masks, appropriately named for their ability to prevent exposure to 95% of airborne particles, are the most protective masks for healthcare workers. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masks are discarded after each patient encounter, resulting in an increasingly scarce national supply.  

Applying this new decontamination strategy will allow a significant number of N95 masks to remain in circulation at all three Duke Health hospitals, according to a Duke School of Medicine news release.

Vaporized hydrogen peroxide is used in a process which can clean 500 masks in a single cycle without causing damage. Although testing has demonstrated masks can undergo this process up to 50 times, Wayne Thomann, assistant professor of family medicine and community health and director emeritus of the Duke Occupational and Environmental Safety Office, told CNN that masks will not be reused more than 30 times.

Although never previously used to decontaminate face masks, this technique has already been in use for a number of years with other equipment.

“This is a decontamination technology and method we’ve used for years in our biocontainment laboratory,” said Scott Alderman, associate director of the Duke Regional Biocontainment Laboratory, in a news release.

Monte Brown, vice president of Duke University Health System, said that many health systems and pharmaceutical companies already have equipment that can be repurposed to facilitate this decontamination procedure. The protocol has been made publicly available.

A shortage of masks worldwide is an issue threatening to cripple the globe’s increasingly overwhelmed healthcare system. Recent reports from Spain indicate that nearly 14% of the 40,000 reported cases in the country are medical professionals; in Italy, this number is one in 10.


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