• A shortage of personal protective equipment as a result of the coronavirus pandemic prompted search for decontamination system that would allow for reuse of what had been one-time use items
  • Masks have come back with broken seals and straps
  • It currently costs $110 to decontaminate a mask using a system developed by Battelle Memorial Institute 

A system made by Battelle Memorial Institute to decontaminate N95 masks to allow for reuse damages the protective gear and leaves chemical residue that could pose their own health threat, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

The system, which received emergency Food and Drug Administration approval in late March, so far has treated some 700,000 masks at a cost of $78 million – more than $110 per mask, the Journal said. Batelle said the cost likely will be brought down to $7 per mask as the process gains widespread use.

Until now, masks have pretty much been single use, but widespread shortages as a result of the coronavirus pandemic left health facilities scrambling. 3M, the biggest manufacturer of masks in the U.S., does not recommend reuse, and along with the FDA warns decontamination could affect the mask’s filter and fit.

The Battelle system, which treats the masks with vaporized hydrogen peroxide, was developed in response to the shortage of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers treating coronavirus patients. It is supposed to allow for each mask to be used as many as 20 times.

Battelle has received more than $400 million in federal contracts to build the decontamination systems and so far, has distributed 50, the Journal reported. Battelle CEO Lou Von Thaer said 16,000 hospitals and other healthcare facilities have signed up for the system and several thousand actively are using it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends reuse of face masks only in the case of severe shortages and to place them in a paper bag between uses.

Rick Lucas, a nurse and union leader at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told the Journal the masks treated by Battelle came back with broken seals and elastic bands. They also were stained by respiratory secretions from other users. He also said nurses are worried about breathing in chemical residue and fibers as the masks break down.

A spokeswoman for the hospital said Battelle’s data had been examined and showed “excellent decontamination” results. Rather than 20 times, however, the hospital plans to clean its masks just five times.

Before the pandemic shortages, 3M’s N95 masks were selling or $1.27 eash. Masks currently are selling for $7 apiece.