FDA committed to innovations in medical device sterilization

Aug. 4, 2022

The sterilization of medical devices is a vital process for helping to prevent serious infections. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration continually works to oversee sterilization methods for these devices to ensure they are effective and used in amounts that are safe for the patients and healthcare professionals who use them.

Ethylene oxide, or EtO, is a gas used during manufacturing processes to sterilize a variety of both medical and non-medical products. Use of ethylene oxide is a well-established and scientifically-proven method of preventing harmful microorganisms from reproducing and causing infections without degrading the product, unlike some other sterilization methods. It is currently the most commonly used method in the U.S. to sterilize medical devices and is widely used by medical device manufacturers and contract sterilizers worldwide.

In fact, more than 20 billion devices sold in the U.S. every year are sterilized with ethylene oxide, accounting for approximately 50% of devices that require sterilization. These devices range from wound dressings to more specialized devices, such as stents, as well as kits used in routine hospital procedures or surgeries that include multiple components made from different materials. Inadequate sterilization can lead to life-threatening infections in patients undergoing a wide range of medical procedures.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates industrial facilities to ensure unsafe emissions levels are not released into the environment, announced plans to propose an air pollution rule later this year to address emissions of ethylene oxide at commercial sterilizers. As part of its proposal, the EPA has conducted a risk assessment which identified 23 commercial sterilizers in several states that were found to emit high levels of ethylene oxide.

The FDA shares concerns about the release of ethylene oxide at unsafe levels into the environment. We have been proactively working with medical device sterilizers to reduce the amount of EtO they use while still effectively sterilizing products to help ensure they meet the EPA’s standards for ethylene oxide emission levels. In addition, we have been working with companies on the development of novel sterilization methods to replace the use of ethylene oxide.

Over the past few years, we have prioritized reducing the use of ethylene oxide and several actions to develop programs and initiatives to support innovation in medical device sterilization. 

For example, we launched the EtO Sterilization Master File Pilot Program for premarket approval (PMA) holders of high-risk devices that enables certain changes between sterilization processes and facilities that reduces the amount of ethylene oxide concentrations used to sterilize medical devices without compromising safety and effectiveness. To date, 11 sites and 28 class III devices are included in the pilot. Multiple organizations have also expressed interest in our recently announced 510(k) master file pilot program, which exponentially expands the number of medical devices that are eligible for pilot participation.

The Innovation Challenges we launched have also shown encouraging progress with new strategies to reduce EtO emissions. Early observations suggest that some facilities have cut emissions ranging from 20-35%, with the potential to impact millions of devices. In general, manufacturers are targeting an ethylene oxide cycle concentration that is 11-66% less than the typical ethylene oxide concentration range. In addition to reducing emissions by lowering the EtO cycle concentration, Challenge participants are also exploring the potential for using alternative sterilization methods, such as vaporized hydrogen peroxide, supercritical carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide for certain types of medical devices. In some cases, device manufacturers are working collaboratively with contract sterilizers to validate new or different sterilization methods as well as the feasibility for scale up.

Collectively, these programs encourage new ways to sterilize medical devices that reduce the potential impact of ethylene oxide on the environment and public health, and we are committed to continuing to prioritize these efforts.  

While signs of innovation are promising, other methods of sterilization cannot currently replace the use of EtO for many devices. To that end, we are equally concerned about the potential impact of shortages of sterilized medical devices that would result from disruptions in commercial sterilizer facility operations. Our supply chain program is ready to work with industry to help prevent and mitigate potential shortages due to reduced supply of certain ethylene oxide sterilized medical devices.

The FDA remains focused in our commitment to encourage novel ways to sterilize medical devices while reducing adverse impacts on the environment and public health and developing solutions to avoid potential shortages of devices that the American public relies upon.

FDA release