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Chemical Decontamination

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Chemical decontamination comes in a variety of forms, depending on both the chemical in question and the area we are trying to remove the chemical from. This lesson will look at the goals of decontamination and summarize different methods of common chemical decontamination.

What is a Contaminant?

The process of decontamination involves the removal of a contaminant from something. This makes sense, but what is a contaminant? Well, a contaminant is any substance or particle that is somewhere we don't want it to be because it makes that place or thing impure. For example, your dog might track mud into the house onto your clean kitchen floor, the same floor your toddler likes to sit and play on while you make dinner. In this scenario, you can say that the mud is a contaminant that makes the floor unsuitable for use by your child. Once the mud is removed, the floor has been successfully decontaminated. To decontaminate something just means you have successfully removed or neutralized a contaminant.

This seems pretty simple, right? Well it is, at least when we're just talking about mud. But what about more complex substances, like various toxic chemicals? How do we remove chemicals from places they shouldn't be? For example, chemicals might end up in our soil, our air, or our water, and removing them requires a lot of money and resources. This already sounds complicated, but, lucky for you, that isn't the purpose of this lesson.

Instead, we are specifically interested in how people are decontaminated when they are accidentally exposed to harmful chemicals. Hospitals and healthcare facilities have standards and protocols in place for properly dealing with chemical decontamination without putting any healthcare workers at risk. Let's dive into some examples.

Preventing Contamination

The first step in chemical decontamination is avoiding contamination in the first place! When a person has known potential exposure to chemical contaminants, they should take care to use proper personal protective equipment (PPE). This might be as simple as a lab coat, goggles, and rubber gloves, or as thorough as a full-body chemical-resistant suit with a special face mask to filter air. Based on the hazard, different PPE have different levels of sophistication, and each situation where exposure is possible has a corresponding safety plan to prevent contamination.

Some chemical decontamination efforts require full body suits to protect response team members.
PPE suit

Decontamination Protocol

If safety measures fail to prevent contamination, what happens next? Well, there are two things to keep in mind: first, time is critical - the sooner a patient receives treatment, the better. Second, it's imperative to know what chemical a patient was exposed to before they can be effectively treated.

When treating a contaminated patient, there are two primary goals:

  1. Prevent additional exposure and, therefore, harm to the patient.
  2. Prevent exposure and harm to medical personnel and other patients (this accidental spread of contamination is called cross-contamination).

As we've learned, chemical decontamination methods will vary based on the characteristics of the chemicals involved. When a response team is considering how to react, they will take five metrics into consideration:

  1. How long the patient has been exposed to the contaminant.
  2. How concentrated or potent the chemical is.
  3. Temperature - chemicals may spread more quickly in higher temperatures.
  4. The physical state of the chemical - is it a gas, liquid, or solid?
  5. The contaminant's other chemical properties - sometimes a contaminant can be deactivated based on its properties.

Decontamination Methods

If a patient can start the decontamination process on themselves, this is ideal, as it limits the potential exposure to the people trying to help. The area directly surrounding the contaminated patient is referred to as the hot zone and the only people entering the hot zone should be appropriately trained and take necessary precautions.

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