Surgeries cancelled after mysterious dust found in QEH operating-room corridor

Teresa Wright
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The Queen Elizabeth Hospital

Operating rooms at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital were shut down and all surgeries cancelled earlier this week after a mysterious dust was discovered in a hallway outside the operating rooms.

Staff noticed the dust on Tuesday afternoon – a thin layer on the floor of a corridor adjacent to the acute care hospital’s operating rooms.

Rosemary Henderson, director of medical affairs for Health P.E.I., says as soon as this was reported, all ORs were shut down and a full investigation launched.

Thirty-five surgeries were cancelled and only the most serious, emergency surgery was allowed as hospital staff worked to get to the bottom of what the substance was, where it came from and whether patients were at risk.

“We’re not sure exactly why it happened, but the (dust) particles just seemed to have dropped from the vent onto the surfaces in that corridor.”

Exhaust vents are located on ceilings throughout the hospital. They transfer exhaled and used air from the building, while a separate set of vents bring clean air into every room.

The dust was found below all the exhaust vents in the OR corridor.

Extensive tests were done the air quality of the operating rooms following the discovery of the dust. Tests found no issues of concern, Henderson said.

The mechanical functioning of the air filtration system also tested. This, too, found no problems.

Lab analysis on the dust itself determined it was made up of normal particles found in the air at any given time, such as skin cells and cellulose fibres.

“It’s just the particles that collect on the grill from the exhausting air from the OR. It’s not an industrial contaminant or anything like that, or anything of concern,” Henderson said.

As for why or how it happened – that remains a mystery.

Henderson says experts have surmised the recent deep freeze in P.E.I. may have played a part. A cold burst of wind could have caused a backflow of air normally transferred out of the room, forcing any buildup of particles back into the room.

But this is just a guess.

“We are confident everything mechanically was working, we just don’t know why that happened at that particular time and it’s not something we’ve seen in the operating suite before.”

Henderson noted a similar incident occurred in the lab several weeks earlier, but no exact cause was determined in that case either.

A total of 25 patients had surgery on Tuesday before the dust was discovered in the OR corridor.

Those patients have been contacted by the hospital to advise them of the incident. Each of those patients are being told there is no cause for concern.

“We’re really quite confident the surgeries haven’t been compromised and there’s no risk to patients as a result of this.”

Henderson says the entire area has been cleaned extensively, all equipment and supplies have been re-sterilized to ensure the dust was completely removed from the operating suite.

The ductwork was also inspected and all exhaust vents were cleaned. Ongoing air sampling and monitoring will continue.

Henderson said she is confident the incident is no longer one of concern.

“We’re satisfied, based on the investigations to date and the processes we’re going to put in place for ongoing monitoring, that there is not a risk for patient safety.”

Operating rooms were back up and running again Thursday. All surgeries will now be reprioritized to ensure patients who had their surgeries cancelled will have timely access to their procedures.

Organizations: Queen Elizabeth Hospital

Geographic location: ORs, P.E.I.

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