IChemE team helps identify process to safely reuse PPE

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:

The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) was recently approached by NHS England and NHS Improvement to provide a proposal to review how personal protective equipment (PPE) might be decontaminated and safely reused, thereby helping to alleviate any potential PPE shortages and reduce the burden of disposal. As a result, IChemE members, working on a voluntary basis, have initiated three parallel projects, initially focusing on demonstrating the technical feasibility of decontaminating PPE.

Volunteers from the Institution's COVID-19 Response Team, working with the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineers (ISPE), have already identified several different solutions to decontaminate PPE including the use of vaporised hydrogen peroxide. This methodology has been approved in other countries for decontamination purposes, plus it is already a recognised process for decontaminating equipment in hospitals and within the pharmaceutical industry.

Dr Nicholas Geary from the IChemE COVID-19 Response Team said: "Whilst the idea of decontamination of PPE may seem strange, hospitals regularly sterilise certain surgical equipment for re-use and frequently clean items of linen. This approach is no different. Our job as engineers is to ensure that this process is carried out correctly and consistently so that NHS staff feel safe and can continue their vital work without fear of running out of PPE."

The IChemE and ISPE team, which consists of over 20 volunteers, has been working with specialist consultants, equipment vendors and facility design companies to support the three projects.

The first project involves facilitating a pathway for validating the decontamination process. Such a process would need to demonstrate that this method can inactivate the virus and that the PPE, particularly masks, has not lost its functionality including the filtration ability and the fit around the wearer’s face. Such a project would not use a live virus but enzyme biological indicators that show the capabilities of the decontamination process.

A key objective for any enterprise conducting the trials would be to demonstrate regulatory compliance of the relevant standards, thereby showing that the decontamination process is safe to operate and that masks that have been through the process are acceptable for use in the NHS, other health care sectors and elsewhere.

The second project involves IChemE members supporting the appropriate consultants, commercial enterprises and NHS medical professionals with the transfer of technology from the first project to the NHS in order to facilitate the testing and validation of the decontamination of potentially contaminated masks as a first step towards regulatory approval within the NHS.

The third project was initiated by IChemE and ISPE members who conceived a large-scale decontamination facility that would be suitable for UK regulations and deployment. To do this, the team brought together a number of specialists who have begun to carry out the preliminary design of such a facility on a pro bono basis. If the first project demonstrates that the decontamination process is safe and produces safe to use masks, and a suitable customer has been identified, either the NHS or a commercial organisation, the design of the facility could then be progressed by these enterprises to the next stage with the aim of getting such a facility built as early as possible.

IChemE and ISPE have been impressed by the number of commercial organisations that have come together in a true spirit of co-operation to help ensure that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting number of deaths is minimised as much as possible.


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