Hydrogen Peroxide ( H 2 O 2 )

Hydrogen Peroxide is a biocidal chemical often used in healthcare sterile processing and food processing. While necessary for sterilization and disinfection, hydrogen peroxide is a highly corrosive chemical. Know the facts for process management and safety.

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Chemical Overview

Applications For Use

Dangers of Hydrogen Peroxide

Regulations & Standards

Safety Practices

Hydrogen Peroxide Monitor

Monitoring Your Environment

What You Should Know About Hydrogen Peroxide Sterilization

Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2) is a highly corrosive, strongly oxidizing chemical that is used as a biocide/sterilant and bleaching agent. This chemical is odorless and colorless, which makes it impossible to know if you are over-exposure to it, without monitoring. When using H2O2 in higher concentrations, it is important to proceed with caution because of the risks associated to it. Its oxidation potential makes it a very efficient biocide, and bleaching agent. This high reactivity also means that it rapidly breaks down in the environment to benign oxygen and water making it environmentally friendly but hazardous to anyone exposed to it. Hydrogen Peroxide sterilization is effective because it is a strong oxidizing agent that breaks down into oxygen and water leaving no residues. This is widely used in healthcare for sterile processing (especially as a low temperature sterilant for heat and moisture sensitive items that come in contact with patients) and in food processing for aseptic filling/packaging. Hydrogen Peroxide sterilization also finds extensive use for bleaching textiles and paper. However, despite its usefulness, H2O2 can be potentially hazardous to any workers overexposed to it or any workers that are exposed to dangerous levels.

Microbiocidal Activity: Hydrogen Peroxide has been shown to be effective against all forms of microorganisms, including dormant forms with known high resistance such as bacterial spores and protozoal cysts, and also infectious proteins such as prions depending on the specific use of the chemical. Hydrogen Peroxide sterilization effectiveness illustrates the risks to ANY living organism, explained further below.

 Keep your employees safe by monitoring for hydrogen peroxide.

Applications for Hydrogen Peroxide sterilization:

  • Sterilization of medical instruments and packs
  • Aseptic packaging and bottling
  • Anti-microbial fogging
  • Bleaching agent

What are the dangers of Hydrogen Peroxide sterilization?

There are a number of dangers to users of Hydrogen Peroxide that everyone should be aware of. One difficult factor is that Hydrogen Peroxide has no smell at low concentrations, making it impossible for workers to know if they are being exposed based on smell alone. This is a big danger of Hydrogen Peroxide because you would never know if you are being overexposed to it, by scent (or any other human sense) alone. The only way to know for sure that you and your workers are or are not being exposed to unsafe levels of H 2 O 2  is with a continuous monitoring system. Inhalation of Hydrogen Peroxide vapors from concentrated (higher than 10%) solutions may result in severe pulmonary irritation.

There is a common myth about Hydrogen Peroxide sterilization stating that it is less dangerous than Ethylene Oxide, but that’s simply not true.  It is simply less researched. It has the same OSHA PEL and ACGIH TLV of 1ppm as EtO, but it has a lower NIOSH IDLH (Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health) of 75 ppm for H2O2 and 800 ppm for EtO. The two chemicals also share a variety of negative health effects.

  • Liquid contact can severely irritate and burn the skin and damage the eyes

  • Inhalation of vapor can irritate nose, throat and lungs, while higher exposures may cause a pulmonary edema (a medical emergency caused by build up of fluid in the lungs)

  • Exposure can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting 

  • Hydrogen Peroxide is a mutagen - handle it as a possible carcinogen (cancer causing). ACGIH classifies it as a 'confirmed animal carcinogen with unknown relevance to humans'

  • Hydrogen Peroxide is a reactive and dangerous explosion hazard, and a strong oxidizer, which may enhance combustion of other substances

  • Symptoms: irritation eyes, nose, throat; corneal ulcer; erythema (skin redness), vesiculation skin; bleaching hair

    Regulations & Industry Standards for Hydrogen Peroxide Sterilization

    The hazards associated with exposure to hydrogen peroxide vapor are well known. The occupational exposure limits for this compound is consistent among the more widely used governmental and professional organizations:

    OSHA General Duty Clause 
    The OSHA general duty clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, requires that each employer furnish to each of its employees a workplace that is free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

    8 Hour Time Weighted Averages (TWA)
        OSHA Permissible Exposure Level: 1.0 ppm   
        ACGIH Threshold Limit Value: 1.0 ppm
        NIOSH Recommended Exposure Level: 1.0 ppm

        DFG MAK (Germany): 0.5 ppm
        United Kingdom: 1.0 ppm

    Short Term Exposure Limits (15 minute TWA)
        Washington & Hawaii States: 3 ppm
        United Kingdom: 2 ppm
            NW territories: 2 ppm
            Saskatchewan: 2 ppm
            Yukon: 2 ppm
        Finland: 3 ppm
        Switzerland: 2 ppm

    ACGIH Excursion Limit
    Excursion LImit Recommendation: "Excursions in worker exposure levels may exceed 3 times the TLV-TWA for no more than a total of 30 minutes during a work day, and under no circumstances should they exceed 5 times the TLV-TWA, provided that the TLV-TWA is not exceeded".

    Therefore, applying this recommendation to hydrogen peroxide (TWA-TLV = 1ppm), workers may be exposed to no more than 3 ppm for no more than 30 minutes a day and a ceiling level of 5 ppm.

    Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health
    NIOSH: 75 ppm

    Emergency Response Planning Guidelines (ERPG)
    ERPG(1) 10 ppm (mild, transient effects) for up to 1 hr exposure
    ERPG(2) 50 ppm (without serious effects) for up to 1 hr exposure
    ERPG(3) 100 ppm (not life threatening) up to 1 hr exposure

    Best Safety Practices for Hydrogen Peroxide Sterilization

    Monitoring H 2 O 2

    It is highly recommended to use a combination of continuous fixed area monitoring and portable area monitoring to find danger zones throughout any facility that uses Hydrogen Peroxide.

    Continuous fixed area monitoring is recommended in the following areas:

    • Near concentrated H 2 O 2 sterilizers, storage areas, dilution lines, and pump stations

    • Any area where employees have experienced symptoms or known risks are present for exposure

    Portable monitoring is recommended as checks needed on Hydrogen Peroxide throughout the day.

    Important to note: Hydrogen Peroxide sterilizers can leak, so you may experience different levels per day. The same goes for sprayers that put off different levels of sanatation per day. Make sure to incorporate vapor monitoring into you QC and safety program. Monitoring will be used to access real-time exposure to hydrogen peroxide sterilization on a daily basis. Facilities can use these monitors to improve work practices, optimize engineering controls and/or add PPE as needed to ensure the safe use of Hydrogen Peroxide.

    Handling H 2 O 2

    At a minimum, chemical-resistant gloves (Neoprene) and splash-proof eye protection should be worn.

    Adding a face shield is appropriate if working with larger quantities.

    Concentrated Hydrogen Peroxide should only be handled in well-ventilated areas.

    Prolonged exposure, or exposure above OELs may require the use of a suitable respirator. If a respirator is used, it should be full face to protect eyes.

    H 2 O 2  Spills

    For ANY spills, DO NOT mop up with paper, cloth or other combustible material.

    Small Spills:
    Diluted with plenty of water to <1.0% and wash all surfaces, articles and clothing which have been contaminated.

    Large Spills:
    For large spills, approach from upwind only if safe to do so due to hazardous vapor. Appropriate respirators and other PPE may be required. If possible, stem the spill and dam spilled liquid with sand or earth. Avoid discharge to the environment and if it occurs immediately notify the appropriate federal, state and local authorities. Dispose of the spilled material in accordance with all applicable regulations, and subsequently decontaminate all surfaces, clothing and other articles with plenty of water.

    Monitoring solutions for Hydrogen Peroxide.

    How ChemDAQ can help to protect your workers and your business by monitoring for Hydrogen Peroxide sterilization.

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