AROUND OREGON: Mollala Fire Department makes Covid-killing disinfectant

Employees of 3R’s Construction Company spray a hospital-grade approved disinfectant into the interior of a vehicle from the Aumsville Police Department Thursday. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

In the spring, when COVID-19 began to spread in the United States, first responders were charged with ensuring safe transport to hospitals. So, Molalla Fire went looking for a fast and effective way to decontaminate ambulances and facilities, and they found it.

The answer: hypochlorous acid.

Hypochlorous acid is produced naturally in human bodies, and in all mammals, for healing and protection. But, as Molalla Fire discovered, it also can be made using salt and water through electro-chemical activation.

Hypochlorous acid is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the United States Department of Agriculture Organic and the World Health Administration. It sanitizes surfaces, killing COVID-19 in 10-15 seconds. Yet it is safe for the skin and is even food-safe at the right potency.

Dustin Hamilton, a Molalla firefighter and emergency medical technician, in April researched and found the product for a decent price. But because of the demand, that price skyrocketed.

So Hamilton contacted Service Wing Organic Solutions in Tulsa, Oklahoma, about a generator they sell. Through a grant from the CARES Act, Molalla Fire was able to purchase that generator for $46,500 and three 330-gallon storage tanks for $1,500, and the department is now making hypochlorous acid for their own use.

“We understand it seems like a lot of money for the machine,” Hamilton said, “but to keep our station open, keep our people healthy and able to run emergency calls is something you cannot put a price on.”

And in the long-run, the machine should prove cost-saving. A gallon of hypochlorous acid was costing the department $35 per gallon at the lowest, bulk rate. Now, the department can make it for about 4 cents per gallon.

And Hamilton calls it “game-changing.”

“When [COVID-19] first came out, we’d go on a COVID patient call, and we’d transport in the ambulance, right? And we’d come back, and it would take literally 45 minutes to an hour to decontaminate the ambulance,” Hamilton said. “Well, that ambulance needs to be available for emergency calls, and if it’s out of service because of decontamination, that’s a problem for our community.”

The hypochlorous acid, aerosolized through an automotive paint sprayer, has sped up the process, reducing apparatus cleaning time to less than five minutes.

“It literally breaks it down to .8 microns and sprays everything,” Hamilton said. “Because it’s in a fog, not even a mist, it’s a fog, it gets into every nook and cranny. It goes into porous fabrics … and decontaminates literally everything. You don’t have to go down and wipe every single nook and cranny to decontaminate the ambulance. We can just spray it and fog it. So that’s what’s sped up the process.”

And Molalla Fire is not keeping the wonder product all to itself but is sharing it with other fire departments including Aurora, Canby, Woodburn, Colton and Sublimity as well as other entities including Country Christian School, Molalla Police and the Oregon Department of Forestry in Molalla.

Once Molalla Fire receives a new label from the Environmental Protection Agency, potentially in the next couple weeks, the department will even offer the product to the public. Instead of charging a set price, they will simply ask for donations.

“If you want to donate $1 per gallon, that’s great,” Hamilton said. “If you want to donate $50 a gallon, that’s great too. If you can’t donate at all, that’s fine too. It’s all going to be a tax write-off for that person who does donate. That (money) just goes into our district fund to try and recover the cost of the jugs and my time to run the machine, the electricity, the water we have to use, the salt.”

Hamilton, who also teaches a fire safety class at the high school, hopes to offer the product to the school district to support in-person learning.

This story is published with permission as part of a statewide collaboration of news organizations to share stories. Salem Reporter is part of the collaboration. 

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