To investigate the airflow characteristics of respiratory isolation rooms (IRs) and to evaluate the use of visible smoke as a monitoring tool.
Industrial hygienists from the New York State Department of Health evaluated 140 designated IRs in 38 facilities within New York State during 1992 to 1998. The rooms were located in the following settings: hospitals (59%), correctional facilities (40%), and nursing homes (1%). Each room was tested with visible smoke for directional airflow into the patient room (ie, negative air pressure relative to adjacent areas). Information was obtained on each facility's policies and procedures for maintaining and monitoring the operation of the IRs.
Inappropriate outward airflow was observed in 38% of the IRs tested. Multiple factors were associated with outward airflow direction, including ventilation systems not balanced (54% of failed rooms), shared anterooms (14%), turbulent airflow patterns (11%), and automated control system inaccuracies (10%). Of the 140 tested rooms, 38 (27%) had either electrical or mechanical devices to monitor air pressurization continuously. The direction of airflow at the door to 50% (19/38) of these rooms was the opposite of that indicated by the continuous monitors at the time of our evaluations. The inability of continuous monitors to indicate the direction of airflow was associated with instrument limitations (74%) and malfunction of the devices (26%). In one facility, daily smoke testing by infection control staff was responsible for identifying the malfunction of a state-of-the-art computerized ventilation monitoring and control system in a room housing a patient infectious with drug-resistant tuberculosis.
A substantial percentage of IRs did not meet the negative air pressure criterion. These failures were associated with a variety of characteristics in the design and operation of the IRs. Our findings indicate that a balanced ventilation system does not guarantee inward airflow direction. Devices that continuously monitor and, in some cases, control the pressurization of IRs had poor reliability. This study demonstrates the utility of using visible smoke for testing directional airflow of IRs, whether or not continuous monitors are used. Institutional tuberculosis control programs should include provisions for appropriate monitoring and maintenance of IR systems on a frequent basis, including the use of visible smoke.
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