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OSHA closes complaint against UPMC over cleaning chemical, but expert says more testing may be needed

"OSHA at this time doesn't really have a good method to test for peracetic acid."

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In February, City Paper wrote about a fairly new hospital cleaner called OxyCide that was being used in more and more hospitals across the country, including facilities in Pittsburgh.

The chemical, which contains peracetic acid, is touted as a useful tool in cutting down on hospital infections. And according to a report released last month by Persistence Market Research, the market for the chemical peracetic acid is rapidly growing. But there is one barrier to that growth.

"Direct exposure to [p]eracetic acid can cause severe burns, allergy, and other hazardous health effects to the eyes, skin and respiratory organs," the report says. "[T]ogether these factors are restricting its wide acceptance in household application ..."

However, it's still being used in some hospitals. Earlier this year, employees from UPMC hospitals filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regarding the use of peracetic acid in their workplaces. (OxyCide is also being used in some local hospitals in the Allegheny Health Network.)

The OSHA complaint was filed on behalf of 200 workers who said they've experienced negative health side effects when using OxyCide. (Workers have also claimed that the chemical irritated some hospital patients.) But in April, OSHA closed its investigation into UPMC's use of the cleaning solution without issuing any violations.

"OxyCide is giving us headaches, making us nauseous and making it hard to breathe," says Justin Sheldon, the employee who filed the complaint. "We know it is making us sick and we will continue to demand that UPMC provide safe working conditions for employees like me."   

And while the complaint might be closed, there's evidence to suggest Sheldon and his fellow employees did not receive a thorough investigation into their complaint. According to chemical-exposure experts, there are flaws in the way OSHA investigates complaints involving peracetic acid. Before this past spring, there was no occupational-exposure limit for peracetic acid, and to this date, OSHA has not set a limit on how much exposure to the chemical is permissible.

"One of the difficulties is peracetic acid is a fairly new chemical," says Richard Warbuton, whose company ChemDAQ manufactured the first peracetic-acid gas monitor. "OSHA at this time doesn't really have a good method to test for peracetic acid."

According to local OSHA spokesperson Joanna Hawkins, when investigating whether an employer violated OSHA safety and health standards, the agency collects samples from the workplace and then sends the samples to the agency's lab in Salt Lake City for analysis. 

"As part of the investigation, OSHA reviewed the Safety Data Sheet for the cleaning chemical Oxy[C]ide and determined the appropriate sampling protocol would be to sample for [h]ydrogen [p]eroxide and [a]cetic [a]cid, which have established OSHA exposure limits," Hawkins said in an email. "OSHA does not have a standard for peroxyacetic/peracetic acid, therefore it does not have a sampling method."

And that's exactly the problem, says Warburton. Alone, the components hydrogen peroxide and acetic acid are not as harmful as when they are combined.

"OSHA in the past has gone in looking just at hydrogen peroxide and acetic acid, even though in most of these cases, the primary irritating compound is the peracetic acid," Warburton says. "Because they didn't have an exposure limit for it, and they didn't have a method to detect it, they sort of ignored it."

OSHA did not provide further comment on how it could determine whether its investigation was accurate.

Now, ChemDAQ is interested in visiting UPMC facilities to test exposure limits for itself.

"For the hospital, if they know the concentration is too high, they can take measures to protect their people," Warburton says. "They can either increase ventilation; they can switch to a different product; they could give their people respirators."

Or decide not to use the chemical at all. After nurses at the University of Vermont Medical Center complained about negative side effects associated with OxyCide last year, hospital administrators discontinued use of the product.

At Mayo Clinic, ChemDAQ recently tested exposure levels associated with using another brand of peracetic-acid cleaning wipes similar to those used at UPMC. The results of that testing have not yet been released.

"Some of the exposures were really low; some were surprisingly high," says Warburton. "In the Mayo Clinic, they had some complaints there and that's why they invited us in to do testing, so they could find out what the concentrations were."

According to ChemDAQ, continued exposure to peracetic acid can result in pulmonary edema, liver and kidney problems, epigastric pain, circulatory collapse and other health problems, which might not be detected for months or even years.

"It's a very effective biocide and that's why hospitals are using it," says Warburton. "But if people get exposed to it, it's irritating. It's strong."

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