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COVID-Killing Air Cleaning Technology Could Be Harmful to Health

April 19, 2021 by Alexa Hornbeck
COVID-19. (NIAID/TNS)

The company Big Ass Fans designed a giant, steel overhead fan which runs on ultraviolet light and ionization claiming it, “kills 99.99% of SARS-CoV-2,” but skeptics such as the Environmental Protection Agency say that the ionizing COVID-killing technology, valued up to nearly $9,500, may not be all that it seems. 

The EPA said it, “cannot confirm whether, or under what circumstances, such products might be effective against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.” 

“We talked to engineers who were asked to put these devices in at 200,000 ions per cubic centimeter, which is lower than a lot of other literature showing efficacy. If you want these ionizing systems to be effective, you have high ion concentration,” said Brent Stephens, professor and department chair of civil, architectural, and environmental engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology. 

In May, Stephens and researchers completed a study which evaluated commercially available in-duct bipolar ionization devices for pollutant removal, like the technologies produced by Big Ass Fans. 

Ionizers work by charging air that passes through them, giving air molecules and particles passing by an electric charge. Those charged fragments of compounds can react with other chemical compounds in a space and charged particles can be attracted to surfaces more easily, depositing out of the air faster. 

“Think about it as the dose makes the poison, if you’re cleaning a surface and you use almost no bleach, then you won’t get anything done,” explained Stephens. 

Stephens and researchers corroborated results from field tests in Chicago, Ill., and a city in Eastern Oregon, where they tested several emerging ionization products because, as Stephens said, “there are currently no regulatory or industry standards for testing.” 

“The testing hasn’t evolved as fast as the manufacturing and sales capability,” said Stephens. “The test reports provided by the manufacturer are not convincing to me and distort the results to make them look more effective than they are,” said Stephens. 

“This brings up the question of whether ion concentrations are good for the human body,” he said. 

Ionizing clean air technologies produced by Big Ass Fans already are being used in gyms like Orangetheory Fitness, and schools like Carnegie Mellon University, which purchased 20 Haiku fans with UV-C technology in order to help bring in-person education back to its students last August, despite EPA findings that high concentrations of ions can potentially be harmful to the human body. 

In March, the agency released a written statement on ionizing clean air technologies which said that, “little research is available that evaluates it outside of lab conditions,” and that the evidence of its safety and effectiveness is “less documented than for more established ones, such as filtration.” 

The statement also said that air cleaning devices which use bipolar ionization have the, “potential to generate ozone and other potentially harmful by-products indoors, unless specific precautions are taken in the product design and maintenance.” 

“The Environmental Protection Agency does not require registration for these devices. However, these devices are regulated in that “false or misleading claims” cannot be made about the effectiveness or safety of devices. If a manufacturer is making claims about a device, they should have scientific data to support the claims. Regulated devices must also obtain an EPA establishment number. Furthermore, EPA does not regulate devices that depend more upon the performance of the user than the performance of the device itself to be effective (such as a fly swatter),” said the agency. 

In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a written statement that while variations of ionization technologies have been around for decades, relative to other air cleaning or disinfection technologies, they have a less-documented track record when it comes to cleaning/disinfecting large and fast volumes of moving air within heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems or even inside individual rooms, but that “does not necessarily imply the technologies do not work as advertised.” 

“In the absence of an established body of peer-reviewed evidence showing proven efficacy and safety under as-used conditions, the technologies are still considered by many to be ‘emerging.’ As with all emerging technologies, consumers are encouraged to exercise caution and to do their homework,” advised the CDC in the statement. 

To make matters more controversial, last week, Robert Redfield, the former director for the CDC, was appointed the strategic health and safety adviser for Big Ass Fans’ Clean Air Systems.

“Big Ass Fans is a leader in designing airflow systems and making places where we live, work, and play, safer,” said Redfield in a written statement. “Proper ventilation has a major role to play in mitigating transmission of COVID-19 and other respiratory pathogens.” 

Another former member of Trump administration’s COVID-19 response team, Deborah Birx, also joined a company which produces ionizing air cleaning systems called Active Pure Technologies as a chief medical and science advisor. 

As the reliability of testing data remains disputed for companies like Big Ass Fans, the EPA recommends using COVID-killing devices which have approved certification for meeting the zero-ozone emissions standard for air cleaners, meaning the products have demonstrated they emit less than maximum ozone concentration limit. 

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