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UMass Study Shows N95 Face Masks Can Be Reused After Sterilization

A UMass Amherst scientist says he's shown that a high-grade medical mask — often considered disposable — can be sterilized and re-used at least once.

Health care workers across the country are facing a dangerous shortage of the N95 mask that helps protect them from COVID-19. The mask is usually thrown away after one use.

So health scientist Richard Peltier conducted an experiment, at the request of New England Baptist Hospital, to see if a mask that's been sterilized with hydrogen peroxide still works.

"Whenever you modify something like a face mask by sterilizing it, does it degrade the functionality of that basis? Does it change the way it works?" he said.

To find out, he compared a sterilized mask to a brand new one, using a mannequin that "breathes" in air particles the same size as the coronavirus. The particles were generated by burning incense inside a test chamber.

"There was no difference between the two (masks), which suggest that these face masks continue to function as they were designed, even after they're sterilized," he said.

Peltier can't say if the masks will work after more than one cleaning, because the experiment was so rushed. But he said hospitals can at least double their mask capacity based on his research.

"It's hard to show absolute evidence that this is profound in the scientific literature," he said. "But this is a message that needs to go to the public."

As campus is closed, Peltier said he had to get special permission from UMass to access his lab, and he only had time to run the experiment once.

Ideally, he said the experiment would be replicated under various different forms of sterilization and over a longer period of time.

"It would be great to...do this dozens and dozens of times. But we just don't have the resources to do that," he said. "We don't have enough face masks. We have to reserve those for the clinical workers who are out on the front line."

President Trump has so far resisted calls to order manufacturers to produce more medical masks.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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