Reprocessing mask using toxic chemicals is not a solution

Nurses are reporting that respirators and face masks at WSNA represented Providence facilities are being collected for reprocessing using ethylene oxide to decontaminate. The EPA has concluded that ethylene oxide is carcinogenic to humans and that exposure to ethylene oxide increases the risk of lymphoid cancer and, for females, breast cancer.

WSNA issues cease and desist demands and files complaints with Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH)

WSNA sent a cease and desist demand to Providence facilities where our members work, demanding an immediate halt to the reusing of any face masks, including N-95 and other respirators, that have been decontaminated by the ethylene oxide cleaning process. In addition, WSNA is preparing complaints to be filed with the Washington State Department of Occupational Safety and Health, highlighting this workplace hazard.

WSNA believes that the reuse of face masks or respirators cleaned with ethylene oxide violates the employer’s legal duty to ensure that nurses and other health care workers are afforded a safe and healthful working environment. While hospitals have long used ethylene oxide to clean certain surgical equipment, it should not be used to decontaminate face masks or respirators, through which nurses and other health care workers must breathe for many hours at a time.

Inadequate preparation is not an excuse to put nurses in harm’s way

WSNA recognizes that hospitals are confronting challenging shortages of face masks, respirators and other personal protective equipment. But in order to care for their patients, nurses should not be forced to breathe through face masks or respirators cleaned with toxic chemicals.

The ethylene oxide cleaning process has NOT been approved by the Food & Drug Administration for emergency use to clean filtering facepiece respirators, and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention state that “Ethylene oxide is not recommended as a crisis strategy [for cleaning face masks and respirators for reuse] as it may be harmful to the wearer.” The CDC warns that ethylene oxide is carcinogenic and teratogenic, and that “inhalation of ethylene oxide has been linked to neurologic dysfunction and may cause other harmful effects to the wearer.”

Prolonged exposure to ethylene oxide can hurt eyes and lungs, harm the brain and nervous system, and potentially cause lymphomas, leukemia, and breast cancer. This extremely hazardous toxic chemical poses a severe risk to human health.

If you believe that your hospital is reusing or expecting nurses to wear face masks or respirators cleaned with ethylene oxide, you may have to make a decision about accepting an assign­ment involving abnor­mally dangerous condi­tions that pose an imminent risk to your safety and health, and could poten­tially cause serious injury or death. You should promptly fill out an Assignment Despite Objection (ADO) to document that you are accepting an assign­ment despite objection.

You can also read more about nurses facing abnormally dangerous patient care assignments at https://www.wsna.org/news/2020/nurses-facing-abnormally-dangerous-patient-care-assignments.

Questions? Contact WSNA Nurse Representative Jayson Dick at jayson.dick@wsna.org.