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A day in the life of a condom tester

A testing officer at the South African Bureau of Standards puts condoms through one of the bureau's home-made testing machines to ensure condoms are free from holes.
(Laura Lopez Gonzalez/PlusNews)

Before you wrap it up, meet the people who check it out. IRIN/PlusNews went inside the condom testing facilities of the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) to see what it takes to ensure condoms really are the frontline of HIV/AIDS prevention.

The SABS tests everything from disposable nappies (diapers) to sardines at its facility in the country's capital, Pretoria. The building itself is a maze of hallways and laboratories, decked out with all the trappings of science - white coats, glass instrument cases, beakers and microscopes.

Outside, past the expansive gardens, next to a heap of discarded equipment, lies the institution's condom testing lab - and Isabella Masemola.

With a background in electrical engineering, Masemola, now a senior testing officer, came to the SABS in the late 1990s and began testing household water meters, but an urge to see something different soon landed her a spot testing radiation badges.

She came to the condom testing lab in April 2007, just months before the lab and the SABS were rocked by allegations that testing manager Sphiwe Fikizolo had accepted money from a condom manufacturer in return for certifying defective condoms. He was later charged with fraud and corruption.

In a country with an HIV prevalence of nearly 20 percent, the Department of Health was forced to recall 20 million condoms. "It was a very stressful time because it was something you couldn't expect," Masemola recalls.

"I mean, if you could have expected it, you could have blown the whistle, but you couldn't expect it; you couldn't expect the immorality of one individual who would put peoples' lives at risk."

Risk, like error, isn't something you can associate with a lab like this. For example, air in the lab is purified twice.

Temperature, humidity and pressure are carefully controlled and logged to ensure conditions remain as constant as possible while lab technicians do random sample testing of about five batches - 4,000 condoms - a day, putting that rubber in your back pocket through hell and, well, high iodated water.

A gauntlet of tests

The barrage of tests, based on World Health Organisation guidelines, begins with a weigh-in to determine whether there is enough lubrication. Condoms and packaging are electronically weighed before the unwrapped condoms are dumped into a bath of isopropanol that is heated to 40 degrees Celsius, stripping them of their lubrication before the isopropanol is allowed to evaporate, and condom and wrapper are re-weighed.

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Next, the measuring stick - or rather rod - is whipped out and condoms are measured against the minimum specifications - 180mm in length and 52mm wide. Thickness is also checked.

From here the condoms are thrown into the lab oven and heated to a scorching 70 degrees C to test the lifespan of the latex, before going into what Masemola and her staff jokingly refer to as the pressure cooker. Here packaged condoms are subjected to extreme pressure in a glass container resembling the familiar kitchen appliance, simulating conditions at different altitudes to test package integrity.

If just one condom in a batch of 800 fails this test, the entire batch will fail. "These condoms travel to different countries, are stored on different shelves, sometimes end up in people's wallets," she said. "We have to make sure they will last."

She motions to a strip of prophylactics that didn't make it past the pressure cooker and now lie oozing lubricant onto her desk: "The manufacturers might give you stories and say it was only one (strip of condoms that failed) but you have to ask how many more have they made in their factory?"

Photo: Laura Lopez Gonzalez/PlusNews
Isabella Masemola went from testing water meters to prevention methods at SABS

But the pulling and prodding, the heat and the pressure pale in comparison to the most important tests awaiting the condoms - those checking for holes and bursting points.

Condoms are suspended from mechanical arms above a tank containing a solution of iodated water, and also filled with this water to check for any visible holes before being plunged into the tank, where sensors detect any minute perforations and where they are.

If a hole is detected 28mm from the condom's opening, the condom is acceptable; 29mm from the top and it fails. Two failures on this test and the entire batch is out, Masemola said.

Not far from the tank is the burst test apparatus, where condoms are filled with purified air until they stretch to roughly a meter in length. 

But for Masemola the job is about more than just the measurements: "If you come across a condom that's SABS approved, you can rest assured because it came from my hands," she said. "I'm a woman and I know what women want."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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