Of all the methods available for sterilization, moist heat in the form of saturated steam under pressure is the most widely used and the most dependable. Steam sterilization is nontoxic, inexpensive 826, rapidly microbicidal, sporicidal, and rapidly heats and penetrates fabrics (Table 6) 827. Like all sterilization processes, steam sterilization has some deleterious effects on some materials, including corrosion and combustion of lubricants associated with dental handpieces212; reduction in ability to transmit light associated with laryngoscopes828; and increased hardening time (5.6 fold) with plaster-cast 829.
The basic principle of steam sterilization, as accomplished in an autoclave, is to expose each item to direct steam contact at the required temperature and pressure for the specified time. Thus, there are four parameters of steam sterilization: steam, pressure, temperature, and time. The ideal steam for sterilization is dry saturated steam and entrained water (dryness fraction ≥97%).813, 819 Pressure serves as a means to obtain the high temperatures necessary to quickly kill microorganisms. Specific temperatures must be obtained to ensure the microbicidal activity. The two common steam-sterilizing temperatures are 121°C (250°F) and 132°C (270°F). These temperatures (and other high temperatures)830 must be maintained for a minimal time to kill microorganisms. Recognized minimum exposure periods for sterilization of wrapped healthcare supplies are 30 minutes at 121°C (250°F) in a gravity displacement sterilizer or 4 minutes at 132°C (270°F) in a prevacuum sterilizer (Table 7). At constant temperatures, sterilization times vary depending on the type of item (e.g., metal versus rubber, plastic, items with lumens), whether the item is wrapped or unwrapped, and the sterilizer type.
The two basic types of steam sterilizers (autoclaves) are the gravity displacement autoclave and the high-speed prevacuum sterilizer. In the former, steam is admitted at the top or the sides of the sterilizing chamber and, because the steam is lighter than air, forces air out the bottom of the chamber through the drain vent. The gravity displacement autoclaves are primarily used to process laboratory media, water, pharmaceutical products, regulated medical waste, and nonporous articles whose surfaces have direct steam contact. For gravity displacement sterilizers the penetration time into porous items is prolonged because of incomplete air elimination. This point is illustrated with the decontamination of 10 lbs of microbiological waste, which requires at least 45 minutes at 121°C because the entrapped air remaining in a load of waste greatly retards steam permeation and heating efficiency.831, 832 The high-speed prevacuum sterilizers are similar to the gravity displacement sterilizers except they are fitted with a vacuum pump (or ejector) to ensure air removal from the sterilizing chamber and load before the steam is admitted. The advantage of using a vacuum pump is that there is nearly instantaneous steam penetration even into porous loads. The Bowie-Dick test is used to detect air leaks and inadequate air removal and consists of folded 100% cotton surgical towels that are clean and preconditioned. A commercially available Bowie-Dick-type test sheet should be placed in the center of the pack. The test pack should be placed horizontally in the front, bottom section of the sterilizer rack, near the door and over the drain, in an otherwise empty chamber and run at 134°C for 3.5 minutes.813, 819 The test is used each day the vacuum-type steam sterilizer is used, before the first processed load. Air that is not removed from the chamber will interfere with steam contact. Smaller disposable test packs (or process challenge devices) have been devised to replace the stack of folded surgical towels for testing the efficacy of the vacuum system in a prevacuum sterilizer.833 These devices are “designed to simulate product to be sterilized and to constitute a defined challenge to the sterilization process.”819, 834 They should be representative of the load and simulate the greatest challenge to the load.835 Sterilizer vacuum performance is acceptable if the sheet inside the test pack shows a uniform color change. Entrapped air will cause a spot to appear on the test sheet, due to the inability of the steam to reach the chemical indicator. If the sterilizer fails the Bowie-Dick test, do not use the sterilizer until it is inspected by the sterilizer maintenance personnel and passes the Bowie-Dick test.813, 819, 836
Another design in steam sterilization is a steam flush-pressure pulsing process, which removes air rapidly by repeatedly alternating a steam flush and a pressure pulse above atmospheric pressure. Air is rapidly removed from the load as with the prevacuum sterilizer, but air leaks do not affect this process because the steam in the sterilizing chamber is always above atmospheric pressure. Typical sterilization temperatures and times are 132°C to 135°C with 3 to 4 minutes exposure time for porous loads and instruments.827, 837
Like other sterilization systems, the steam cycle is monitored by mechanical, chemical, and biological monitors. Steam sterilizers usually are monitored using a printout (or graphically) by measuring temperature, the time at the temperature, and pressure. Typically, chemical indicators are affixed to the outside and incorporated into the pack to monitor the temperature or time and temperature. The effectiveness of steam sterilization is monitored with a biological indicator containing spores of Geobacillus stearothermophilus (formerly Bacillus stearothermophilus). Positive spore test results are a relatively rare event 838 and can be attributed to operator error, inadequate steam delivery,839 or equipment malfunction.
Portable (table-top) steam sterilizers are used in outpatient, dental, and rural clinics.840 These sterilizers are designed for small instruments, such as hypodermic syringes and needles and dental instruments. The ability of the sterilizer to reach physical parameters necessary to achieve sterilization should be monitored by mechanical, chemical, and biological indicators.
The oldest and most recognized agent for inactivation of microorganisms is heat. D-values (time to reduce the surviving population by 90% or 1 log10) allow a direct comparison of the heat resistance of microorganisms. Because a D-value can be determined at various temperatures, a subscript is used to designate the exposure temperature (i.e., D121C). D121C-values for Geobacillus stearothermophilus used to monitor the steam sterilization process range from 1 to 2 minutes. Heat-resistant nonspore-forming bacteria, yeasts, and fungi have such low D121C values that they cannot be experimentally measured.841
Moist heat destroys microorganisms by the irreversible coagulation and denaturation of enzymes and structural proteins. In support of this fact, it has been found that the presence of moisture significantly affects the coagulation temperature of proteins and the temperature at which microorganisms are destroyed.
Steam sterilization should be used whenever possible on all critical and semicritical items that are heat and moisture resistant (e.g., steam sterilizable respiratory therapy and anesthesia equipment), even when not essential to prevent pathogen transmission. Steam sterilizers also are used in healthcare facilities to decontaminate microbiological waste and sharps containers 831, 832, 842 but additional exposure time is required in the gravity displacement sterilizer for these items.