Microwaves may make face masks really reusable

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

It has been widely reported that access to respirators and surgical face masks has become restricted in many facilities over the course of the pandemic.

In a recent study from Cardiff University, researchers tested the feasibility of using microwave ovens and dry heat to decontaminate crucial PPE being used to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

They found that certain types of respirators can be effectively decontaminated in just 90 seconds using an industrial-grade microwave oven and a baby bottle sterilizer containing water.

They believe microwave decontamination could be used in emergency situations to address supply issues and dramatically increase the number of respirators available to frontline staff.

The study is published in the Journal of Hospital Infection. One author is Prof Jean-Yves Maillard.

In the study, respirators were exposed to three microwave disinfection cycles and were shown to retain their ability to filter bacteria and viral-sized aerosols.

However, the team found that microwaving surgical masks led to a complete loss of their aerosol filtering capacity.

Surgical masks are known to lose effectiveness once they become moist. The team suspected that microwave disinfection would lead to a similar loss in their ability to filter aerosols and this was confirmed by our lab observations.

They also examined using dry heat ovens as an alternative approach. Dry heat sterilization does not involve any water and so is compatible with items that are damaged by moisture.

Exposure to 70°C dry heat for 90 minutes was effective at decontaminating both surgical masks and respirators. After three dry heat cycles, both types of mask retained their aerosol filtering properties.

It is essential that PPE is effectively decontaminated between uses.

Whilst microwave-generated steam and dry heat have both been shown to effectively kill coronaviruses, the researchers wanted to ensure that this method was also effective against bacteria encountered in healthcare environments.

As a result of the study, the team has developed a protocol to determine which types of PPE would be suitable for different treatments with dry heat incubators or microwave ovens.

They warn against members of the public using a similar approach at home.

They say domestic microwave ovens typically have much lower power, around 800 W, and use rotating turntables rather than a rotating antenna.

Significantly longer exposure times would be needed to achieve similar results and it is unknown how this would affect the functioning of the mask.

Masks that contain thin wires can even catch fire when placed in a microwave.

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