Reprocessing masks using toxic chemicals is not a solution

WSNA demands an end to the use of Ethylene Oxide (EtO) to reprocess masks

Nurses at CHI facilities reported that respirators and face masks were 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 demand and reported to the Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH)

WSNA sent a cease and desist demand to CHI 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 notified 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.

CHI agrees to discontinue plans to reprocess using EtO

Thanks to nurses reporting on CHI’s plans to reprocess masks and respirators using EtO and the action taken by your union, CHI has assured us that they will not be using this harmful chemical process to decontaminate and reuse respirators and masks.

Failure to prepare is never an excuse to put nurses in harms way

The failure of hospital systems and the government to adequately prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic by ensuring adequate PPE is available to nurses and other health care workers does not give license to further jeopardize the health and safety of front line health care workers. 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 face masks or respirators cleaned with ethylene oxide, you should contact your WSNA nurse representative, Barbara Friesen, at bfriesen@wsna.org as soon as possible and you should promptly file an Assignment Despite Objection (ADO) form, available on the WSNA website.