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COVID-19 spread can be reduced with slower drills

London: Research from Imperial and King’s College London has found that careful operation of dental drills can minimise the aerosol spread of COVID-19.

Dental procedures can pose a high risk of viral transmission because the tools that are used often produce aerosols, which can contain high numbers of SARS-CoV-2 virions – the virus behind COVID-19.

The aerosols are generated when saliva mixes with water and air streams used in dental procedures. As a result, access to routine dentistry continues to be limited during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Aerosols are a known transmission route for the virus behind COVID-19, so, with our colleagues at King’s, we have tested solutions that reduce the amount of aerosols produced in the first place.

Dr Antonis Sergis, Department of Mechanical Engineering

Dental practices, which are now back in operation, have had to introduce new room decontamination processes and personal protective equipment measures which have dramatically reduced the number of patients that can be treated in a single day.

In particular, dentists need to leave long intervals between treatments, leaving rooms unoccupied to allow aerosols to dissipate. This is limiting patient access and challenging financial feasibility for many dental practices worldwide.

Now, researchers at Imperial College London and King’s College London have measured and analysed aerosol generation during dental procedures and suggested changes to prevent contamination in the first place to improve safety for both patients and the dental practice workforce.

They suggest that dentists avoid using dental drills that use a mixture of air and water as the abrasion coolants, and carefully select and control drill rotation speeds for those instruments that only use water as a coolant.

They also identified parameters that would allow some procedures such as dental fillings to be provided whilst producing 60 times fewer aerosol droplets than conventional instrumentation. 

Lead author Dr Antonis Sergis of Imperial’s Department of Mechanical Engineering said: “Aerosols are a known transmission route for the virus behind COVID-19, so, with our colleagues at King’s, we have tested solutions that reduce the number of aerosols produced in the first place. These could help reduce the risk of transmission during dental procedures.”

The need for (dental) treatments hasn’t gone away. Our suggestions could help begin to open up dentistry to patients once again.

Professor Owen Addison, King’s College London

Co-author Professor Owen Addison of King’s College London Faculty of Dentistry, Oral & Craniofacial Sciences said, “This important work describes the basic mechanisms that lead to the features of dental aerosols that we currently consider to be high risk. This has enabled us to choose drill parameters to keep our patients and the dental team safe at this difficult time. Although we cannot provide every procedure, because slowing our drills is much less efficient, we now have the basis to do more than we have done in the last six months.”

The results are published in the Journal of Dental Research and are already being included as evidence in guides for dental practices in the UK during the pandemic. The collaborative research used the engineering expertise at Imperial and clinical expertise at King’s College London’s Faculty of Dentistry, Oral & Craniofacial Sciences.

Measuring aerosols

The researchers used dental clinical rooms at Guy’s Hospital in London to test how aerosols are generated during procedures such as decay removal, applying and polishing fillings and adjusting prostheses. They measured the aerosol generation using high-speed cameras and lasers. They then used these findings to suggest modifications.

They found that using air turbine drill types, which are the most common type of dental drill, creates dense clouds of aerosol droplets that spread as fast as 12 metres per second and can quickly contaminate an entire treatment room. Just one millilitre of saliva from infected patients contains up to 120 million copies of the virus, each having the capacity to infect.

They tested a different type of drill, known as high torque electric micromotor, with and without the use of water and air streams. They found that using this drill type at low speeds of less than 100,000 rpm without air streams produced 60 times fewer droplets than air turbine drill types.

In addition, they found that aerosol concentration and spread within a room is dependent on the positioning of the patient, the presence of ventilation systems, and the room’s size and geometry. It is also influenced by the initial direction and speed of the aerosol itself, which can be affected by the type of cutting instrument (burr), and the amount and type of cooling water used.

The researchers say that by understanding how to reduce the amount of aerosol generated in the first place, their suggestions could help dentists practise more and help patients get the treatment they need.

They also note that patients should still not attend dental appointments if they have symptoms of COVID-19.

Professor Addison said: “Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, dentistry has become a high-risk practice – but the need for treatments hasn’t gone away. Our suggestions could help begin to open up dentistry to patients once again.”

Co-author Professor Yannis Hardalupas, also of Imperial’s Department of Mechanical Engineering said: “The impact of the results is significant. For example, the risk categorisation for dental procedures included in the FGDP (UK) document was certainly influenced by our work.”

The team’s research is ongoing. They are currently better assessing the risk of infection by quantifying the amount of saliva mixed into the generated aerosols by dental instruments.

Courtesy by Imperial College London


Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

December 21, 2020

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