Why Do Disposable Respirators Have a Defined Shelf Life?

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Curious about why respirators expire? Here’s what you can do to make sure your respirator inventory stays up to date and ready to go.

ST. PAUL, Minn. – If you’re responsible for managing inventories of personal protection equipment, you should be aware that most disposable respirators – used to protect wearers against particulate airborne hazards – have a limited shelf life, after which they should no longer be used.

But what does it mean for a respirator to “expire?” Let’s find out.

Disposable respirators can help reduce exposures to potentially harmful substances, such as various particulate hazards. The specially designed filter media traps particulates that pass through when the wearer inhales air. A good fit on the face is critical, since a proper seal helps keep outside air from leaking around the edges of the respirator.

Components can degrade over time

The longer a respirator has been in storage, the less likely it is to perform at its full potential. Over time, components such as the strap and nosefoam may degrade, which can affect the quality of the fit and seal. Additionally, expired respirators may potentially no longer meet the certification guidelines set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

In order to help keep performance at the expected level, 3M has set shelf life guidelines for most of its disposable respirators. Expiration dates vary according to respirator type, filter media, other materials used in construction, and date of manufacture. On 3M disposable respirators, shelf life information can usually be found on the side or bottom of the packaging. An hourglass icon will be nearby to help you identify the expiration date, which is different from the “factory” icon near the date of manufacture.

Packaging Guide

Here is an example of how storage conditions and shelf life will be depicted in the IFU and primary box respectively (this is an example only):

When stored in original packaging between temperatures from -4°F (-20°C) to +86°F (+30°C) and not exceeding 80% RH, the respirator may be used until the date specified on packaging located next to the “Use by Date” symbol.

How to store your disposable respirators

Storage conditions are a key factor for shelf life too. In the United States, per 29 CFR 1910.134, OSHA has required that respirators be stored in the original packaging and away from contaminated areas, dust, sunlight, extreme temperatures, excessive moisture and damaging chemicals. Canada’s CSA Standard Z94.4 has a similar requirement.

Here are a few steps you should take for proper storage:

  • Always store respirators in their original packaging
  • Keep respirators away from contaminated areas, dust, sunlight, extreme temperatures, excessive moisture and damaging chemicals
  • Implement good inventory management practices, including stock rotation

Replenishing your stockpile and disposing of expired respirators

Now that you understand why respirators expire, and how to maintain your stockpile, you may also be interested in alternatives for what to do with your inventory once it has expired. Rather than disposing of your expired respirators in a landfill – there are other options to help you dispose of them in an environmentally sustainable and cost-effective way.

Option 1: Recycling

Expired/aging product can be recycled into new plastic products. For instance, through Deltco Plastics, there is no charge for this service (customers do pay shipping charges). Contact Deltco or your recycling provider to confirm eligible products, quantities and fees (if any).

Option 2: Donation

Aging product with at least 12 months of shelf life remaining can be put in the hands of groups in need. We’ll help you identify donation options for your N95 stockpile. This solution may also allow your organization to receive a tax credit. Contact Michael Stroik at 651-736-7068 or mstroik@mmm.com to see how 3M’s philanthropic arm, 3Mgives, may be able to help.

In order to help hospitals, emergency preparedness agencies, and business continuity managers achieve their sustainability and cost management goals, 3M created the 3M™ Disposable Respirator Stockpile Maintenance Program. It offers you several sustainable, convenient and cost-effective options for disposing of your aging and expired stockpiles of 3M™ N95 Respirators.

We’ll partner with you to help you find organizations that can recycle or donate your outdated respirators. We’ll also help plan a purchase schedule that can help you save money and reduce waste.

For more information on respirator expiration and respirator shelf life, or to contact a 3M Emergency Preparedness Specialist, please visit us at 3m.com/stockpile.