Thursday, October 1, 2020

Old Medical Kits and Their Uses

The safety people came through work the other day and dug around for things to complain about. (I figure that's their job, so I just listen and don't offer any information; that's the best way to stay out of trouble.) One of the things they glommed onto was our first aid kits.

I work in a very small office attached to a medium-sized grain elevator, so our first aid kit is a wall-mounted box that is supposed to be kept stocked by a contractor. The contract got messed up and hasn't been renewed for a while, so the kit had several expired contents. We also have small kits for each vehicle and the safety nerds found a few old “car kits” and a chemical burn kit on a back shelf.

Here are a few pictures (all photographs by me) of the older kits and their contents:

As you can see, the smaller kit is very basic and has some damage to one package. That was the “Foille Ointment”, an old-style burn cream; I can only guess that the heat and age finally broke down the inner wrapping and the “vegetable oil ointment” seeped out. It's still beingmade and sold as an ointment for minor scrapes and burns.

Nothing in the small kit has an expiration date, which is not surprising since it was sold sometime in the 1960's at the latest (there's no zip code in the address). The building was built in the late 1950's, so this kit was probably close to original equipment.

The larger kit is more recent, with expiration dates around 8 years ago. If you look at the contents, you'll see that it has quite a bit more variety than the small kit.

The small boxes in the upper left corner are single-use eye wash bottles, with a variety of gauze pads and iodine wipes on the bottom of the right side under the bag of vinyl gloves.

The burn gel is a water-based gel containing alcohol, triclosan (the same thing found in most anti-bacterial soaps), tea tree oil, and a mild analgesic (pain killer). Used to protect a burn from getting infected it should still work, but the other ingredients have unknown shelf-lives.

While old, most of the contents of both kits are still usable:
  • The gauze and bandages that will contact a wound are still sealed and dry, so their sterility is intact.
  • The triangular bandages and gauze wrap are not and don't need to be sterile, and as long as they are still strong enough to do their job they are worth keeping.
  • The bandage scissors and tweezers from the larger kit will still work.
  • The vinyl gloves are degraded from age. Vinyl does age better than latex, but it will slowly fall apart.
  • The instant cold pack is a simple chemical reaction between water and ammonium nitrate. Neither is going to break down in storage, so it will still work.
  • Iodine is a simple chemical and the disinfectant wipes will be good for a long time. The same goes for alcohol wipes, as they don't break down or allow microbial growth.
  • The ammonia inhalants are going to still be potent, but their use has been minimized over the last few decades. If someone is unconscious, it's best to leave them that way until they can get to professional medical help.

Some of the things that will not be usable:
  • Adhesives don't age well, so the tape is going to be suspect. You may have to strip off the outer layers to get down to something that is still sticky. I checked the roll from the larger kit, and it wouldn't even stick to itself.
  • Adhesive bandages also don't age well. They lose their ability to stick and the cheap ones that are simple plastic will degrade. Cloth or plastic-infused cloth bandages last a bit longer and can still be used for covering wounds with a gauze wrap to hold them in place.
  • The eye wash bottles are doubtful. Water is hard to get perfectly clean, so there's always a chance that something is growing in the bottles.
  • The containers are falling apart, even though they've just been sitting on a shelf for years. The plastic used for the small kit is actually crumbling and leaving dust behind. The larger kit had both latches snap off and the hinge is going to go soon.
  • The Merthiolate antiseptic swabs are old-school and will still work, but the use of mercury-containing antiseptic compounds is out of fashion and may be unsafe. (That and it burns like a red-hot iron on even a minor scrape. I'm old enough to remember blowing on the red wound paint as a child, it hurt worse than the cuts.)
  • There were no medications in any of the little kits, but you'll have to research each one you find for an actual usable life. The printed shelf life is often very conservative and sometimes meaningless: antacids are usually chalk and have the shelf-life of coal and antiseptics are fairly simple and have long lives, but any cold medicines or more complex chemicals tend to break down faster. 
  • I won't even get started on the chemical burn kit. It's almost scary what they once used to use for treatment. I saved the metal box and trashed the contents.

I also salvaged some “expired” supplies from the larger (wall-mounted) first aid kit before having it restocked, but they all fall under the same categories as the stuff above. For stocking a backup kit or just having for a true emergency, they'll be better than nothing. The gauze and miscellaneous supplies will be used for training my grandkids on proper wound treatment -- training is always a good use for slightly expired goods.

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