In addition to its use as a disinfectant, glutaraldehyde is also used as a tissue fixative in histology and pathology labs and as a hardening agent in the development of x-rays.
Healthcare workers who might be exposed to glutaraldehyde include the following:
- hospital staff who work in areas with a cold sterilizing procedure that uses glutaraldehyde (for example, gastroenterology and cardiology departments)
- hospital staff who work in operating rooms, dialysis departments, endoscopy units, and intensive care units where glutaraldehyde formulations are used in infection control procedures
- central service (supply) workers who use glutaraldehyde as a sterilant
- research technicians, researchers, and pharmacy personnel who either prepare the alkaline solutions or fix tissues in histology and pathology labs
- laboratory technicians who sterilize benchtops with glutaraldehyde solutions
- workers who develop x-rays
How Exposure Occurs
Workers can be exposed to glutaraldehyde through inhalation or skin contact during the following procedures:
- cold sterilization of instruments in endoscopy and surgical units: when glutaraldehyde solution is poured into or out of the sterilizing pans & when sterilized equipment is removed from the sterilizing pans
- disinfection of histology/pathology laboratory tabletops
- mixing and activation of various glutaraldehyde solutions
- tissue fixation in histology labs
- development of x-rays
Exposure to glutaraldehyde may cause the following symptoms: throat and lung irritation, asthma and difficulty breathing, dermatitis, nasal irritation, sneezing, wheezing, burning eyes, and conjunctivitis. Workers may be harmed from exposure to glutaraldehyde.
Short-term (acute) effects: Contact with glutaraldehyde liquid and vapor can severely irritate the eyes, and at higher concentrations burn the skin. Breathing glutaraldehyde can irritate the nose, throat, and respiratory tract, causing coughing and wheezing, nausea, headaches, drowsiness, nosebleeds, and dizziness.
Long-term (chronic) effects: Glutaraldehyde is a sensitizer. This means some workers will become very sensitive to glutaraldehyde and have strong reactions if they are exposed to even small amounts. Workers may get sudden asthma attacks with difficult breathing, wheezing, coughing, and tightness in the chest. Prolonged exposure can cause a skin allergy and chronic eczema, and afterward, exposure to small amounts produces severe itching and skin rashes. Glutaraldehyde has been implicated as a possible cause of occupational asthma.
Workers can protect themselves from potential health risks of glutaraldehyde by using the following control methods and work practices:
- Use local exhaust ventilation (capture velocity of at least 100 feet per minute) and at least 10 room air exchanges per hour.
- Keep glutaraldehyde baths under a fume hood where possible.
- Use only enough glutaraldehyde to perform the required disinfecting procedure.
- Wash gloved hands after handling glutaraldehyde.
- Wear goggles and face shields when handling glutaraldehyde.
- Seal or cover all containers holding glutaraldehyde solutions.
- Store glutaraldehyde in closed containers in well ventilated areas. Air-tight containers are available. Post signs to remind staff to replace lids after using product.
- Attend training classes in safety awareness about use of and exposure to glutaraldehyde.