Mass. nurses saying no to decontaminated masks

BOSTON — When Battelle opened its decontamination unit at Assembly Row in Somerville last month, it was described as a literal lifesaver.

“This machine will keep more masks in use and will sustain our PPE supply here in Massachusetts,” Gov. Charlie Baker said during an Apr. 11 news conference.

Battelle and Partners Healthcare were given the green light to sterilize a used face mask up to 20 times, using a chemical process with vapor phase hydrogen peroxide.

But nurses say it’s making them sick.

“[We’ve received] complaints of everything from ‘they smell foul,’ one nurse told me it almost smells like rotten eggs, some have had nausea and dizziness,” said Judith Pare, Director of Division of Nursing Education and Practice with the Massachusetts Nursing Association (MNA).

The MNA is demanding the decontamination process stop and advising nurses of their right to refuse the decontaminated masks.

“The lack of reliable information on these practices, as well as the potential safety risks of these decontamination procedures pose risks to the health and safety of health care workers, as well as the general public at large require that these practices be halted,” the organization said in a statement Apr. 29.

Sam Fabian, a nurse at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, said she won’t touch a decontaminated mask.

“I refuse to use [the decontaminated] ones. I just don’t think they’re that safe,” Fabian said.

Fabian said nurses are worried about what chemicals they’re being exposed to, and if the integrity of the masks are being affected.

“A friend of mine had one, a strap that broke on her while she was in a [room with] COVID-19 patients, and that’s not acceptable,” Fabian said.

“Nurses are afraid of what chemicals are being put on those masks and what they’re breathing in,” she said.

Another nurse told Boston 25 she felt dizzy and thought she was going to pass out the first time she wore a decontaminated mask.

“Many of them are having side effects that we hope are short term but we have no way of knowing that,” Pare said.

3M, the leading N95 mask manufacturers, said its still working with several decontamination companies to make sure the cleaning systems work “without having a negative impact on fit and filtration.”

A Battelle spokesperson told Boston 25 the decontamination process is safe.

“We agree that the first preference for health professionals is to use new N95 masks… If new N95 masks are not available, [Battelle’s] mask decontamination is a viable option… as proved through laboratory testing,” wrote a company spokesperson.

“We have had a very positive response from the Boston healthcare community. Boston has been on the largest, and supportive, users of the service,” the spokesperson wrote to Boston 25.

Partners Healthcare declined to comment for this story, referring us to Battelle and the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association (MHA).

“While hospitals continue to work around the clock to identify new sources of protective equipment, these decontamination solutions have made it possible for them to respond to this unprecedented healthcare challenge,” said Dr. Patricia N. Noga, vice president for Clinical Affairs with the MHA.

But Pare disagrees, and insists there’s no proven science that shows decontamination of PPE works.

“[Nurses are] being told they don’t have a choice and that to me is very concerning,” Pare said.

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