What do we know?
The spread of COVID-19 has brought conversations on health and hygiene to the forefront. For double reed players, this means reed sanitizing practices. Unless you are a professional making your own reeds, they will have been in at least one other person’s mouth. Those who teach or otherwise share reeds regularly expose themselves and their students to potentially harmful pathogens. I was working as a band camp oboe instructor when I came down with Hand/Foot/Mouth Disease. Upon returning to work, I discovered that I had contracted it from a student through shared reeds. Fortunately, I was the only one who got sick, but it could easily have spread through the whole group. It possibly could have been prevented through appropriate reed sanitizing practices.
While many reed makers are taking steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus and other pathogens, industry standards dictate that individuals should still take responsibility for the sanitizing of their new reeds before playing. Teachers, likewise, will want to have more informed practices in place to use during lessons once in-person lessons resume. In researching this article, we found that many of the commonly accepted reed cleaning practices are entirely ineffective against illness causing viruses and bacteria. It is crucial to remember that with all cleaning methods listed below, soaking just the cane as you normally would to wet the cane before playing will not disinfect the reed. The entire reed needs to be immersed in whatever disinfecting solution you are using. Also, the time recommendations are based on information about nonporous, clean surfaces as scientific experiments with cane have not been conducted at this point. We will first take a look at general sanitizing options the CDC recommends.
Of the CDC/EPA recommendations, a 70% alcohol dilution is likely one of the most efficient solutions on smooth surfaces.
Of the CDC/EPA recommendations, a 70% alcohol dilution is likely one of the most efficient solutions. Based on several studies, isopropyl (C3H8O) and ethyl alcohols (C2H5OH) are equally effective in disinfecting a hard surface.
Isopropyl alcohol has an approximate pH of 8, which is slightly alkaline. This should not degrade the cane. Harmless when used as an external antiseptic, it can be deadly when ingested in quantity. We recommend thorough rinsing in clean water afterward to remove the isopropyl.
Ethyl Alcohol or Ethanol, with a pH of about 7.33, is very close to neutral and should not degrade the cellulose in the cane. Ethyl alcohol is the kind of alcohol present in all alcoholic beverages. Many believe Vodka to be an effective disinfectant. It is not. The alcohol content must be at least 60%. Most vodkas available have an alcohol content of only 40%.
Everclear, on the other hand, is bottled at 120 (60%), 151 (75.5%), 189 (94.5%), and 190 proof (95%) and is a safe alternative that may be more readily available than many alcohol cleaning products at this time of heightened concern.
Not all alcohol is appropriate for cleaning reeds, the presence of sugars in all other commonly available alcohols made for consumption can cause build up and damage your reeds. Sugars may also encourage mold and bacteria growth.
For an alcohol treatment to be truly effective the CDC recommends that a surface be soaked in the alcohol for at least one minute. If we applied this to reeds, a quick dip and swabbing the inside with a Q-tip or pipe cleaner would not adequately disinfect a reed. It would need to be fully immersed for at least one minute and probably more since it has a porous surface. Alcohol, especially isopropyl alcohol, can leave an unpleasant taste on the reed. I found that swishing the reed briefly in a glass of water really helped get rid of that. But a safer practice would be to rinse it in running water.
A commonly accepted misconception is that mouthwash can be used to disinfect reeds. Most mouthwash falls between 10% and and 30% alcohol, this is simply not strong enough to effectively kill viruses. Generally, mouthwashes also contain essential oils, sugar alcohols and dyes; all of which are likely to damage your reeds.
For an alcohol treatment to be truly effective the CDC recommends that a smooth surface be soaked in the alcohol for at least one minute.
Although hydrogen peroxide is an acid with most commercially available dilutions having a pH between four and five, oboist Aaron Lakota has noticed very little cellulose degradation in the cane when soaking his reeds in it. Our play tests and examination under a microscope also support this.
The CDC/EPA recommendations indicate that a 0.5% plus hydrogen peroxide dilution for 5 to 10 minutes will disinfect a smooth surface. Porous surfaces are expected to need more time to soak in.
Over time, hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) loses an oxygen molecule becoming water (H2O). Depending on the buffers present in each commercial formulation of hydrogen peroxide solution the half-life can range between five hours and twenty days. Bottles that are several months old are probably not effective. We recommend rinsing your reeds in water after soaking them in hydrogen peroxide solution.
Salt, water and vinegar are converted to electrolyzed water when an electric current changes the chemical composition of the solution into hypochlorous acid (HOCl) and sodium hydroxide (NaOH). Traditionally, hypochlorous acid was only used in industrial settings because it has a short shelf life and the electrolyzer needed to create it was expensive. However, in the past few years several companies have produced reasonably priced electrolyzers, designed for home use.
The half life of hypochlorous acid is only 4 hours. However, it breaks down into chlorine (Cl2) and water, which has a half life of 30 days, in a dark container. Depending on the concentrations, it can remain an effective cleaner for a couple weeks or more.
As this is a non-toxic gentle cleaner recommended by the CDC/EPA for killing the COVID-19 virus, we have included it in our list of acceptable cleaners. The CDC/EPA recommends soaking a surface for 10 minutes to be effective.
There is no visible reaction with the staple when it is left in any of the solutions for 10 minutes, except that the text stamped on the cork may fade slightly on some staples.
RiegerClean (an electrolyzed water based solution) is, theoretically, an effective cleaner for reeds. While the RiegerClean packaging lists chlorine (Cl2), hypochlorous acid (HOCl), chlorine dioxide (ClO2), and ozone (O3) as the active ingredients, all of these chemicals except chlorine have a half life of minutes or hours. By the time RiegerClean gets to a store shelf all that is left is chlorine made through electrolysis. The company claims that it has a shelf life of at least 12 months from the date of manufacture.
While this product is not on the EPA list of disinfectants for use against the COVID-19 virus, other similar products indicate that the contact time should be between 10 and 15 minutes.
RiegerClean comes in a small spray bottle. For optimum effectiveness, reeds should be soaked for 10 to 15 minutes, not just spritzed.
Some studies have indicated that the COVID-19 virus cannot survive temperatures greater than 132°F (56°C) for more than 15 minutes. Maintaining a high enough temperature to kill the COVID-19 virus, but a low enough temperature to avoid burning the reeds can take special equipment. Many home ovens have a minimum temperature of 175°F though some go as low as 150°F.
We placed gouged shavings in the oven at 175°F for 20 minutes and did observe some slight browning of the exposed cells under the microscope. While we have not tested this ourselves, one reed maker has experimented with success baking his bassoon reeds at 150°F (65°C) for 20 minutes while inside their shipping tubes. His play tests did not reveal a change in the reed’s sound or playability. It is probable that 150°F has little or no effect on the reed, but you must be careful not to go above 150°F.
In a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine on March 17, it was found that COVID-19 can survive on cardboard for up to 24 hours. As cardboard is primarily composed of cellulose, as is cane, cane may be similar in this regard. It is unknown whether the moisture in the cane may extend this time, though. The same study showed that COVID-19 could last up to 72 hours on stainless steel and plastic. To be on the safe side we believe three days should be enough time to kill the Coronavirus on reeds shipped to you from the maker. However, since COVID-19 is so new and there are still many unknowns when it comes to cane, you may want to give it even more time.
While time can effectively kill COVID-19, many other transmittable diseases are not killed by time outside of the body and may lie dormant for many decades. It is important to practice other disinfection methods.
Based on both the microscopic examinations and the play tests, we feel that there is little likelihood of damaging the cane in any way with the 10 minute immersion times for any of the tested solutions.
Effects on Reeds
We tested all the staples we sell to see if any of the recommended disinfectants react with the metal, glue or cork. We checked the staples at 1 minute, 10 minutes, 1 hour, and 9 hours of soaking time. What we discovered is that there is no visible reaction with the staple when it is left in any of the solutions for 10 minutes, except that the text stamped on the cork may fade slightly. When we left the staples in for 9 hours we had lots of issues. On some the cork came unglued, the metal tarnished, and/or the cork bleached. The following are a few tables showing our results. It should be noted that Rigotti and Lorée staples are manufactured by Chiarugi.
Undiluted Everclear 151 (75.5%) was used for Ethyl Alcohol. Although this had the strongest effect on the glue holding the cork on the tube, it should be noted that different brands use different glues, and some brands are not strongly affected by it. Bonazza was not strongly affected by the ethyl alcohol.
A store bought 70% dilution of isopropyl alcohol was used for this experiment. Although isopropyl reacted with the glue in similar ways to the ethyl alcohol, the reaction was much slower.
Newly purchased, a 3% dilution of hydrogen peroxide was used for this experiment. Overall, hydrogen peroxide had the least effect on the staples we sell and tested. However, we noticed that it reacted strongly with an unbranded student staple we happened to try. It caused loosening of the glue within an hour, and complete separation after about a day. Whichever sanitation method you try should be tested first.
We used a Force of Nature brand electrolyzer, and immersed the staples in the electrolyzed water within ten minutes of electrolysis. Between all the solutions, this was the only solution that had any effect on the metal, causing it to discolor after 9 hours. Except the Pisoni, the glue was also beginning to loosen after 9 hours.
It is important to note that some of these sanitizers have bleaching properties. Before you soak your reeds, you should test it on your thread.
To examine the effects of various sanitizing methods on the cane, we took several gouge shavings and immersed them in various solutions, examining them under a microscope to see if there was any observable degradation of the cell walls. We also soaked three reeds in each solution for several times the CDC recommended times for surfaces, play testing them before and after to note any changes.
We carefully examined the vascular bundles and the parenchyma cells for any degradation after long soaks in, ethyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, electrolyzed water, and exposure to heat. It was noted that in that small shaving, it took some time before the liquid filled in all the visible air pockets. The only pieces that showed any observable change was the cane exposed to 175°F (79°C) heat for 20 minutes. It showed a slight browning especially observable in the fragments of parenchyma cells that were sticking up from the surface of the cane having been sliced by the gouging machine.
Definitive conclusions are hard to draw from play tests alone. There are so many variables that affect the playability of reeds. Testing three reeds in each solution, none of our play tests showed any change that could not be attributed to the effects of additional soaking or over soaking. The biggest difference could be heard in the reeds that were soaked in the electrolyzed water, however this may have simply been because the reeds were soaked for 20 minutes, longer than the other solutions. Five-minute soaks in isopropyl and ethyl alcohols revealed no change. Similarly, ten-minute soaks in hydrogen peroxide did not seem to change the reed.
Based on both the microscopic examinations and the play tests, we feel that there is little likelihood of damaging the cane in any way with the CDC recommended immersion times for any of the tested solutions.
These methods may all be well and good for the professional reed maker who has the time to soak appropriately or heat in the oven, but how can they be applied to the student and teacher example I shared earlier? All these methods take time. The fastest method suggested above is a one-minute soak in alcohol followed by a quick rinse. However, because cane is porous, the amount of time recommended by the CDC will have to be adjusted to longer and it must be understood that to this date, there is no known testing that would indicate how long is needed for cane. Additionally, it is noted by Dr. Adam Schwalje, MD, medical liaison to the IDRS, and Dr. Peter Krug, Ph.D. that respiratory secretions are full of proteins and other things that in the end protect viruses from immediate inactivation and that pores contain air bubbles which are not quickly dislodged by soaking. Other cleaning methods may need to be investigated before sanitizing can effectively be done. So at this time, there hasn’t been enough research on cane specifically to know how long is needed to kill everything on cane and what other methods might be necessary to clean a reed first. Therefore, our current recommendation is to soak the reed in the less expensive isopropyl alcohol, then air dry completely and quarantine for at least a week. This makes sharing reeds in a lesson situation not a good option at this time. We hope that these unprecedented times are a catalyst to some needed research in this area for our industry.
All methods, though proven effective on non-porous surfaces, have not been tested on reed cane specifically.
If you have any suggestions or stories to share, please comment in the comments at the bottom of the screen. We will be sure to respond.
Reeds Bought at Hodge Products
While our reed makers are conscious of the dangers associated with the spread of Coronavirus and do their best to ensure that their reeds are sanitized, ultimately, it is the responsibility of the buyer to resanitize upon arrival to eliminate any possible doubt about its cleanliness and to play with confidence.
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While my name is listed as author, I want to draw attention to the fact that this article was really the efforts of three people. Tim Hodge, my son and biologist, wrote much of the scientific content and did much of the microscope testing. Kate Hodge, my daughter-in-law, was a huge help with editing.