Nonprofit opens Illinois site to clean masks for Advocate Aurora Health amid pandemic

WAUKEGAN, Ill. — A biochemical research company has opened up a new site in Illinois to sterilize used N95 medical masks with hydrogen peroxide gas as the need for them has increased due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Columbus, Ohio-based Battelle started the cleaning process at the Waukegan sterilization facility earlier this month, the Chicago Tribune reported. Company officials said the site can clean up to 80,000 masks daily.

Healthcare workers use N95 masks to prevent the spread of the virus. But supplies have plummeted amid the outbreak.

The facility is intended to serve hospitals and first responders for free, said Lewis Von Thaer, CEO of Battelle, a nonprofit with a long history of government contracting. The Illinois site has been sterilizing masks for Advocate Aurora Health’s Illinois and Wisconsin hospitals, according to Battelle.

“Our goal is to serve all the hospitals and the first responders, and then nursing homes," Von Thaer said. “We’re setting these things up to be regional, so they’re not tied to a specific hospital.”

Battelle has six pilot sterilization facilities. But Von Thaer added that the sites aren't a long-term solution.

“This is stopgap," Von Thaer noted. Before coronavirus, masks were 85 cents a mask, and that’s probably the cost of cleaning them. At some point, the mask production will catch up and the price will go back to normal.”

The government has awarded the company a $400 million contract to build 60 more facilities across the country. It will hire more than 1,000 people.

The masks are not soggy after the cleaning process because the hydrogen peroxide is in gas form. The chemical is odorless and leaves behind no toxic residue, Von Thaer said. Company officials said the fabric of the mask does not break down, but the elastic bands will after about 20 cleanings.