Sterilizing a hospital by hand is a monumental task, even with a dedicated team. With so many sick people in an enclosed environment, germs are bound to be deposited onto surfaces just as fast as they're wiped away.
It's much easier to sterilize a hospital using UV light. Ultraviolet light (UVC) has been used for sterilization for decades, but this technology has seen some major upgrades in recent years. For example, LightSources found a way to create a shatter-resistant germicidal UVC lamp
that lasts up to 16,000 hours. That's a significant improvement that not only makes lamps last longer, but prevents injuries from shattered glass.
How does UVC germicidal lamp sterilization work?
UV light sterilization breaks down chemical bonds
and scrambles DNA, RNA, and protein structure. This prevents a microorganism from multiplying. A microorganism that cannot multiple is no longer infectious.
To see UVC sterilization in action, here's a time-lapse of UVC killing bacteria
in just one minute.
What improvements have been made to UV sterilization technology?
In addition to shatter-proof and long-lasting bulbs, UV sterilization lamps have protective shields to protect the user from coming into direct contact with the UVC light. Direct exposure to UVC light is harmful to the skin and the eyes.
UVC bulbs have also gotten smaller and it's now possible to have LEDs that emit UVC light.
Since the coronavirus pandemic caused a shortage of N95 masks, people have been using home-made light sterilization systems
to safely reuse masks.
There are a few limitations to UVC light sterilization
Although there are plenty of benefits to UVC light sterilization, there are a few limitations. For example, the light will only sterilize via line of sight. The light must come into direct contact with something to be effective.
Since it's dangerous to come in direct contact with UVC light, it's not feasible for a team of people to run around a hospital with UVC wands because that would put staff members and patients in harm's way.
UVC light is a known carcinogen
Anything that can kill entire colonies of bacteria in under a minute is clearly going to do serious damage to a person's body if exposed. Exposure to UVC light is known to cause cancer in humans and is officially classified as a carcinogen.
UVC wands are available to the public
, and that may not be a good thing right now. These wands can be extremely useful, but must be used with extreme cautionâ€”perhaps more caution than the average person is willing to exercise.
The best way to use this technology is to install multiple bulbs in a room placed at different angles and make sure the room is vacated before activating the light from outside the room.
Older UVC lamps can be dangerous
If you're going to use older UVC lamps, there are additional precautions to follow. Many older lamps contain mercury, which makes a broken bulb a serious biohazard. Some older bulbs also emit ozone, which is toxic when breathed into the lungs.
Commercial UVC products can receive a safety certification
One safety feature that makes UVC lights safer is that commercial products that meet certain standards are certified safe by companies like Underwriters Laboratories
. These certified products usually come with detailed manufacturer instructions and precautions to make sure the user understands the risk.
Home UVC products, on the other hand, don't get certified by UL. In fact, the company won't certify any consumer-facing portable UVC wand devices because it's impossible for them to manage the risks. Consumers would be better off buying a commercial, certified handheld wand instead.
Modern advances are making UVC lamps safer
Although there are several critical precautions to take when using UVC lamps for sterilization, the advances are mitigating some of those dangers. Shatter-resistant bulbs make it harder for broken glass to become a serious problem in the event that a bulb is dropped or hit. Broken bulbs are also prevented by longer lasting bulbs since they don't need to be changed as often.
People working in a hospital setting have the advantage of being able to set up rooms with UVC light that only gets turned on when the room is cleared. People looking for wands to use at home may not know the inherent risks and could end up unnecessarily hurting themselves.
While there are dangers to using UVC light as a sterilization method, taking the right precautions can mitigate the potential for harm. As long as hospital staff understand the reason a room must be cleared before activating the lights, they'll be less likely to make a mistake that harms themselves, other staff, or a patient.
Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.
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