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FAQ - Instrument Processing - 2015
 FAQ  - Instrument Processing - 2015



I have a question that has recently come up regarding the current standards for verifying sterilization - what are the current requirements for verifying that sterilization ha occurred from cycle to cycle and also with regard to the use of BI's? 

Ask OSAP would like to refer you to the 2003 CDC guidelines for infection control in dentistry which can be accessed at this link: 1 

Specifically, the section on Sterilization Monitoring is relevant. In part it states:

Sterilization Monitoring.
Monitoring of sterilization procedures should include a combination of process parameters, including mechanical, chemical, and biological (247,248,277). These parameters evaluate both the sterilizing conditions and the procedure’s effectiveness.

Mechanical techniques for monitoring sterilization include assessing cycle time, temperature, and pressure by observing the gauges or displays on the sterilizer and noting these parameters for each load (243,248). Some tabletop sterilizers have recording devices that print out these parameters. Correct readings do not ensure sterilization, but incorrect readings can be the first indication of a problem with the sterilization cycle.

Chemical indicators, internal and external, use sensitive chemicals to assess physical conditions (e.g., time and temperature) during the sterilization process. Although chemical indicators do not prove sterilization has been achieved, they allow detection of certain equipment malfunctions, and they can help identify procedural errors. External indicators applied to the outside of a package (e.g., chemical indicator tape or special markings) change color rapidly when a specific parameter is reached, and they verify that the package has been exposed to the sterilization process. Internal chemical indicators should be used inside each package to ensure the sterilizing agent has penetrated the packaging material and actually reached the instruments inside. A single-parameter internal chemical indicator provides information regarding only one sterilization parameter (e.g., time or temperature). Multiparameter internal chemical indicators are designed to react to >2 parameters (e.g., time and temperature; or time, temperature, and the presence of steam) and can provide a more reliable indication that sterilization conditions have been met (254). Multiparameter internal indicators are available only for steam sterilizers (i.e., autoclaves).

Because chemical indicator test results are received when the sterilization cycle is complete, they can provide an early indication of a problem and where in the process the problem might exist. If either mechanical indicators or internal or external chemical indicators indicate inadequate processing, items in the load should not be used until reprocessed (134).

Biological indicators (BIs) (i.e., spore tests) are the most accepted method for monitoring the sterilization process (278,279) because they assess it directly by killing known highly resistant microorganisms (e.g., Geobacillus or Bacillus species), rather than merely testing the physical and chemical conditions necessary for sterilization (243). Because spores used in BIs are more resistant and present in greater numbers than the common microbial contaminants found on patient-care equipment, an inactivated BI indicates other potential pathogens in the load have been killed (280).

Correct functioning of sterilization cycles should be verified for each sterilizer by the periodic use (at least weekly) of BIs (2,9,134,243,278,279). Every load containing implantable devices should be monitored with such indicators (248), and the items quarantined until BI results are known. However, in an emergency, placing implantable items in quarantine until spore tests are known to be negative might be impossible.

Manufacturer’s directions should determine the placement and location of BI in the sterilizer. A control BI, from the same lot as the test indicator and not processed through the sterilizer, should be incubated with the test BI; the control BI should yield positive results for bacterial growth.

In-office biological monitoring is available; mail-in sterilization monitoring services (e.g., from private companies or dental schools) can also be used to test both the BI and the control. Although some DHCP have expressed concern that delays caused by mailing specimens might cause false-negatives, studies have determined that mail delays have no substantial effect on final test results (281,282).

Procedures to follow in the event of a positive spore test have been developed (243,247). If the mechanical (e.g., time, temperature, and pressure) and chemical (i.e., internal or external) indicators demonstrate that the sterilizer is functioning correctly, a single positive spore test probably does not indicate sterilizer malfunction. Items other than implantable devices do not necessarily need to be recalled; however the spore test should be repeated immediately after correctly loading the sterilizer and using the same cycle that produced the failure. The sterilizer should be removed from service, and all records reviewed of chemical and mechanical monitoring since the last negative BI test. Also, sterilizer operating procedures should be reviewed, including packaging, loading, and spore testing, with all persons who work with the sterilizer to determine whether operator error could be responsible (9,243,247). Overloading, failure to provide adequate package separation, and incorrect or excessive packaging material are all common reasons for a positive BI in the absence of mechanical failure of the sterilizer unit (260). A second monitored sterilizer in the office can be used, or a loaner from a sales or repair company obtained, to minimize office disruption while waiting for the repeat BI.

If the repeat test is negative and chemical and mechanical monitoring indicate adequate processing, the sterilizer can be put back into service. If the repeat BI test is positive, and packaging, loading, and operating procedures have been confirmed as performing correctly, the sterilizer should remain out of service until it has been inspected, repaired, and rechallenged with BI tests in three consecutive empty chamber sterilization cycles (9,243). When possible, items from suspect loads dating back to the last negative BI should be recalled, rewrapped, and resterilized (9,283). 1

Additionally, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has additional FAQ information on its website pertaining to Sterilization Monitoring which can be accessed at this link: 2


1)     Kohn WG, Collins AS, Cleveland JL, Harte JA, Eklund KJ, Malvitz DM, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Guidelines for infection control in dental health-care settings—2003. MMWR Recomm Rep 2003;52(RR-17):1-61.    Accessed on April 20, 2015.

2)     US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Infection Control - Frequently Asked Questions - Sterilization — Monitoring.   Accessed on April 20, 2015



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