3D-Printed PPE: Promising Solution or Contamination Risk?

Infection Control TodayInfection Control Today, June 2023, (Vol. 27 No. 5)
Volume 27
Issue 5

3D-Printed PPE in emergencies seemed like a great idea during the COVID-19 pandemic. But a recent study shows they could be a contamination risk to patients and staff.

Colorful bright row of spool 3d printer filament.     (Adobe Stock 248686924 by stockphoto-graf)

Colorful bright row of spool 3d printer filament.

(Adobe Stock 248686924 by stockphoto-graf)

Results of a study1 presented at the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America Spring Conference in April 2023 suggest that 3D-printed materials in hospitals are susceptible to bacterial contamination.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) globally. PPE, which includes items such as face masks, gloves, gowns, and face shields, is essential for health care workers,
especially those who are at the forefront of the battle against the virus. As the number of cases surged, hospitals and health care facilities found themselves facing severe shortages of PPE.

The sudden increase in demand for PPE was primarily due to the highly contagious nature of the virus. Health care workers required PPE not only to protect themselves but also to prevent the spread of the virus to other patients and individuals. However, the supply chain for PPE was not prepared to handle such a significant increase in demand, leading to a global shortage of PPE. Many health care facilities turned to alternative sources, including 3D-printed materials.

In a study, Katelin Jackson, MS, MPH, and colleagues exposed 3D-printed disks for 3 to 24 hours to methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Escherichia coli, and Klebsiella pneumoniae to assess if bacteria would grow on the material used to make PPE.1,2

They concluded that 3D-printed materials in hospitals are very susceptible to bacterial contamination and capable of retaining the contaminants. The researchers conducted a comparison between polylactic acid (PLA), the standard 3D-printing material, and 2 other filaments, PLActive and Purement. Manufacturers for PLActive and Purement say the filaments have antibacterial properties because they contain copper and silver, which are known to minimize bacterial populations. In the study, PLActive and Purement exhibited lesser degrees of bacterial contamination compared with PLA. However, when disinfected, the PLA disks had a lower average colony-forming unit count overall, although bacterial populations returned to previous levels within a few hours after disinfection.2

The researchers noted that 3D-printing materials could be extremely useful for hospitals, particularly in emergency situations, and that the proper utilization of suitable 3D-printed materials and disinfection practices could aid in reducing bacterial contamination.

The use of 3D-printed materials for PPE during the pandemic highlighted the challenges of ensuring the safety and effectiveness of new technologies in health care. To address the issue of bacterial contamination in 3D-printed PPE, it is essential to use appropriate disinfection techniques and to select materials with antibacterial properties. Similar to 3D-printed PPE, traditional PPE can also be susceptible to bacterial contamination if not properly stored, donned, disinfected (when reusable), or used outside of the parameters explained in the item’s instructions.1

1. Jackson K. 3D printers in hospitals: reducing bacterial contamination on 3D-printed materials. Presented at Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America Spring Conference, April 11-14, 2023; Seattle, WA. https://s3.amazonaws.com/amz.xcdsystem.com/CC9E5A3D-C759-E179-4726A3A2A1D7F5E4_abstract_File17709/AttendeePDFHandout_318_0412113216.pdf

2. Feller S. 3D-printed material — used by some hospitals for PPE — is ‘readily contaminated.’ Accessed May 3, 2023. https://www.healio.com/news/infectious-disease/20230421/3dprinted-material-used-by-some-hospitals-for-ppe-is-readily-contaminated

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