US health officials predict shortages of critical medical supplies

WASHINGTON -- Government officials are warning U.S. hospitals that they could soon face shortages of critical surgical tools and equipment because of the closing of sterilization plants.

Sterilization is a daily process at hospitals and many other health care facilities, used to remove bacteria from medical scopes, catheters, surgical kits and other reusable instruments.

Hospitals use various cleaning methods, including heat, steam and radiation.

The problem follows the recent closing of facilities that use a chemical, ethylene oxide, that's been increasingly restricted in some states.

The chemical is used to clean an estimated half of all sterilized medical devices in the U.S, and is the only method for cleaning many devices made from plastic, metal or glass, according to the FDA.

It can cause cancer at elevated levels.

Earlier this year, Illinois authorities closed a large plant owned by Sterigenics near Chicago after detecting high outdoor levels of the gas.

This month the company announced the facility would not reopen.

Another Sterigenics plant in Georgia has been closed for maintenance since August after state officials detected potentially dangerous emissions at the Atlanta facility. The company has been working to reduce emission levels from the plant.

The Food and Drug Administration notified medical professionals that the issue could result in years of shortages of supplies such as catheters and other supplies used in heart surgery, knee replacements, C-sections and many other procedures.

"The impact resulting from closure of these and perhaps more facilities will be difficult to reverse," said FDA acting commissioner Ned Sharpless, in a statement, adding that the shortages "could compromise patient care."

The FDA urged hospitals to inventory their supplies and alert government officials if they face major shortages. The agency said regulators could help identify alternative devices for those impacted by the issue.
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