The coronavirus pandemic has kept many of us locked in our homes for over a year now, leaving only for essential reasons and unable to gather in spaces that we once occupied daily like offices or restaurants. Over a year later, things are finally starting to change. Access to vaccines is expanding rapidly, and some spaces are trying to invite people back in with the help of technology that can supposedly purify the air and kill the airborne coronavirus. While this technology certainly sounds promising, and we’d all like to imagine innovation is all it takes to battle a crisis like COVID, it’s worth being skeptical of these solutions.
You’ve probably started to see an increasingly growing market of air purifiers that claim to utilize some proprietary technology that can kill viruses. Some may even claim that they help defend against the coronavirus specifically. They are often marketed as ion-generating systems that utilize “bipolar ionization” to kill bacteria and viruses. But a new study conducted by researchers at Portland State University, Illinois Tech and Colorado State University found that these technologies may not be as effective as they claim to be.
How the Coronavirus Spreads
By now, we all know that the coronavirus spreads mainly through the air. There are two ways that this occurs: through respiratory droplets and airborne particles. We’ve been battling the respiratory droplets with masks and social distancing, both of which significantly reduce the potential spread of these invisible but harmful droplets.
Airborne transmission, meanwhile, occurs when particles containing the virus hang in the air for an extended period of time. This happens by clinging to other things that are often already in the air space, like water vapor or dust. The virus can hang onto these particles and linger, leaving the possibility that it will infect you if you remain in the room for a while. This is what air purifiers often attempt to combat.
Air Purifiers Claiming They Kill the Coronavirus
There is some evidence to suggest that air purifying systems — particularly heating, ventilation and air conditioning or HVAC systems — can play a role in combating the spread of the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend proper ventilation in buildings to limit the spread of the virus and conclude that air cleaners “can help reduce airborne contaminants including viruses in a building or small space.” However, the CDC also notes that “by itself, air cleaning or filtration is not enough to protect people from COVID-19.”
Despite this, some air-cleaning systems and air purifiers have started to be marketed as a defense against coronavirus. These systems claim to electrically charge particles and get them out of the air faster. These techniques may work against some viruses, bacteria and other airborne contaminants, but the evidence that they work against coronavirus in a way that would make buildings safe is lacking.
Studies Suggest Air Purification Isn’t Enough
A new study published in the journal Building and Environment took air purifying systems and tested them in real-world conditions to see if the ionizing technology effectively protected people against coronavirus. The findings suggest that many of these purifiers and air-cleaning systems are not as effective at removing the virus-carrying particles as they may claim. Some findings also indicated that byproducts formed by the systems could react with other compounds and actually produce potentially harmful results.
There is still more testing needed to find out precisely what the effects of these air-purifying systems are. But the researchers’ findings suggest that there are not rigorous enough standards being applied to the market, and some marketing may be getting ahead of these products’ actual capabilities.
Don’t Fall For False Promises
Air cleaners can help remove some particles from the air, but be wary of any companies claiming their products combat the spread of the coronavirus. More research is needed to determine how much these systems actually help — or if they may do more harm than good.