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Theme 5: Improving the operational effectiveness of skin decontamination in exposure to toxic chemicals

Following a major incident involving exposure to a hazardous substance, it is often necessary to ask people to undergo decontamination using showering facilities erected by the emergency services.

This theme is developing the evidence-base for what constitutes effective decontamination.

Work is proceeding in two strands. In the first, laboratory evaluation of existing and novel methods for decontamination in acute chemical emergencies is being conducted, led by Newcastle University (Wilkinson).

One study is generating quantitative data on dermal “pick up” from materials, including contaminated clothing, to simulate contact with contaminated surfaces and measure the rate and extent of absorption through the skin of these chemicals under these conditions. The chemicals being studied include surrogates for chemical warfare agents and radionuclides.

This work will identify the dose-effect relationships influencing chemical transfer and absorption and test the effectiveness of rapidly deployable decontamination techniques compared with standard protocols.

A second project is assessing the “delayed” absorption of chemicals. Quantitative data on the influence of different skin decontamination regimes (including novel approaches using sponges, ionotropic agents and rapidly deployable techniques such as wet wipes) and exposure times on “reservoir effects” will be generated using surrogates.

This will determine whether the effectiveness of decontamination is altered by asking people to subsequently put clothes back on and whether decontamination redistributes the skin surface contamination over a wider skin area, reducing the effective skin loading.

Complementary work by the PHE Behavioural Sciences team (Amlôt) is examining proposed decontamination strategies in human volunteer trials using simulants, including the transfer of contamination during disrobing, the efficacy of rapidly deployable dry and wet decontamination options and the occlusive effect of re-robing.

The effect of responder communication strategies on decontamination efficiency (speed and protocol compliance) and effectiveness (removal of simulant contaminants) is also being assessed.

Lead researchers

Dr Simon Wilkinson

Staff Scientist

Newcastle University

Dr Richard Amlôt

Scientific Programme Leader, Science and Techology Team in the Emergency Response Department

Public Health England