Heat provides the most reliable way to sanitize and rid objects of transmissible agents — but many biological materials, electronics, and plastics are heat sensitive. For these, low-temperature gas sterilizers using ethylene oxide or hydrogen peroxide, for example, function by exposing the articles to high concentrations of reactive gases.
While this use of chemical sterilants (or high-level disinfectants) eliminates the problem of heat damage, it poses new challenges for workplace safety. Chemicals used as sterilizers are designed to destroy a wide variety of pathogens… and usually the same properties that make them good sterilants are the same ones that cause adverse health effects in people.
Recently, an investigation of hydrogen peroxide vapor leakage from hydrogen peroxide sterilizers was conducted in Japan in response to reports of eye and throat irritation from workers. The investigation included four models of low-temperature hydrogen peroxide sterilizers. Although concentrations varied, the existence of hydrogen peroxide was detected in proximity to all of the models.
Researchers also found that sterilized products give off gas hydrogen peroxide after they were removed from the apparatus. Off-gassing of sterilant gas is well-documented with ethylene oxide, but this new research concludes the same issue occurs with hydrogen peroxide, too. Work practices, engineering controls, and monitoring need to be employed appropriately – as they are with other hazardous chemicals.
In fact, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), as seen here, has established an 8-hour, time-weighted average for any type of exposure to hydrogen peroxide gases and they recognize it as an “immediate hazard” when found in higher concentrations (i.e., greater than 75 ppm). Moving forward, be cautious when utilizing hydrogen peroxide for any sterilizing applications.