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November 6, 2018, Updated April 2019
Glutaraldehyde is very similar to formaldehyde in its structure and uses in the healthcare industry. Chemically, glutaraldehyde exists at room temperature as a liquid, whereas formaldehyde exists under those conditions as a gas, which can easily be dissolved in water.
Glutaraldehyde is often used as a substitute for formaldehyde because formaldehyde is now a suspect cancer-causing substance. Glutaraldehyde may be a good substitute for formaldehyde/formalin but it appears to be more irritating than formalin. Eye, throat and lung irritation has often been traced to glutaraldehyde. Some medical schools have introduced glutaraldehyde in cadavers for student laboratories but the results have been mixed both as tissue preservation and as an irritant. Asthma and asthma-like symptoms have been identified by NIOSH in their investigation of hospital occurrences of the symptoms just mentioned (“Glutaraldehyde – Occupational Hazards in Hospitals”). Contact dermatitis, hives, staining of hands (tan) and nausea are other symptoms of glutaraldehyde exposure identified by NIOSH.
An Often Used Chemical
Glutaraldehyde has many uses as a disinfectant and a tissue preservative in hospitals, labs, pharmacies, outpatient treatment centers, and of course, morgues. It has found steady use for cold sterilization where equipment may be heat sensitive such as surgical instruments that are not totally metallic, dialysis equipment, bronchoscopes, ear, nose and throat instruments, and suction bottles. Further, it is used as a tissue fixative for histology and pathology and in some instances, as a cadaver preservative in morgues as a substitute for formaldehyde (actually formalin which is a combination of formaldehyde and alcohols).
Persons in hospitals and other medical related fields who may be exposed to glutaraldehyde include:
- Medical Students and Teachers
- Cold Sterilization Staff
- Operating Room Personnel
- Dialysis Personnel
- Intensive Care-Infection Control Staff
- Histology Lab Technicians
- Medical Researchers
- Central Service and Maintenance
- Workers who develop X-Rays
- Mixing and diluting sterilization solutions
It is relatively easy to monitor medical staff personnel and hospital departments for glutaraldehyde. It gets much more complicated in correcting exposure problems, especially where substitute solutions are not as effective in dealing with sterilization needs. Corrective measures and exposure controls may require the services of a specialist such as an industrial hygienist. Controls such as downdraft tables, lab hoods, local exhaust ventilation, and respiratory protection must be considered as options.
Written by Robert E. Sheriff, CIH, CSP
Robert E. Sheriff is the CEO of Atlantic Environmental. A Certified Industrial Hygienist and Certified Safety Professional, he has over forty years of experience providing human health hazard assessments and ventilation design in industrial settings. For more information and a free proposal, contact him at 800-344-4414, email him at email@example.com or simply use our contact form to get in touch.m
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