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Air Purifiers for COVID Are the Latest Pandemic ‘Hack’

Here’s a total dumbass’ guide to the magical $300 air-cleaning boxes everyone loves. Spoiler alert: No, you can’t stop wearing a mask

From the dawn of COVID, we humans, ever fallible, have been trying to figure out a way to keep it from entering our bodies and our minds. We wear two masks. We wear gloves. Some of us wear face shields. Others — admittedly, not our best — even suggested injecting Clorox directly into their veins, but the forcefield did not work. 

The point is, we’re coming up on nearly a year of the virus and we’re still exploring new ways to outsmart this sneaky disease. Most recently, the culture of pandemic protection has focused some of its attention on the not-even-a-little-humble-at-$200-a-pop air purifier. But are they worth it? 

Let’s FAQ things up.

Wait, there’s a device that purifies air? Is that like a Brita filter, but for oxygen?

Yes. Basically, an air purifier is a device that removes tiny particles of matter (like dust, pollen and other allergens) from the air. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that the air inside the typical home is generally dirtier than the air outside, in part thanks to moisture that can trap contaminants and lead to the development of mold. According to the EPA, indoor air tends to be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air, since there’s less ventilation and recirculation of air. Hence, why people might consider getting themselves an air purifier. 

Are there different types of air purifiers?

There are. In all, there are at least five different types. The most common and powerful is a HEPA filter, which is usually built into an HVAC system and has been around since World War II and further developed with the Manhattan Project

HEPA filters draw in polluted air and pass it through a filter, usually made of fiberglass, where the airborne particles get trapped in a tangle of fibers. Other types of air purifiers include ionizers, ozone generators and electrostatic filters, which give floating particles a negative charge so they’re then pulled toward a collector plate within the devices themselves, or various surfaces around the room. “An air purifier with a UV light has the power to take care of microbes, sometimes even viruses,” writes Bill Joplin on his eponymous blog. “You can get UV lights installed within your HVAC system.”

That’s a lot of air purifiers. Do any of them actually help trap and kill the COVID?

Actually, yes, they can. According to the MD Anderson Cancer Center, the coronavirus is at the lower end of a HEPA filter’s range, so while they might not be 100 percent effective on a single pass, if used over a period of time, a HEPA filter “can take out a big chunk of viruses — somewhere in the high 90th percentile (99.94 to 99.97 percent).” Plus, they add, “long enough exposure to the UV light in an air-purifying device can disable some viruses, including COVID-19.”

Glory Dolphin Hammes, a Council-certified indoor environmentalist who worked with the Hong Kong Hospital Authority to provide air purification systems during the SARS outbreak, told Rolling Stone that, generally speaking, “air purifiers can be helpful during the coronavirus pandemic because they can clean the air and circulate clean air in indoor spaces that may have little to no ventilation.” She adds that ventilation, either through air purifiers or open windows, “is essential to decreasing transmission rates through dilution.” Which is to say that at the very least, an air purifier can, in an instance of exposure, help minimize the amount of virus that is spread in a particular space. 

If they work so well, why isn’t everyone getting air purifiers? 

Well, they are. “Searches for air purifiers surged in the United States this week by 450 percent,” Yahoo! News reported in September. 

Huh. So if we get enough of these things, could we effectively just scrub COVID out of the air?

Nope. An air purifier isn’t going to prevent you from getting COVID if you’re spending unmasked time around someone who has the virus — it’s not a silver bullet. Although air purifiers can help reduce airborne contaminants, they have to be combined with other strategies to really prevent the spread of the virus. “If you buy a portable air cleaner and stick it in the corner of a gymnasium, it’s not going to be very effective,” Joseph Allen, an assistant professor of exposure assessment science and director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard University, told WebMD

It should also go without saying (but sadly doesn’t) that air purifiers aren’t even necessary if you’re practicing the most effective coronavirus prevention methods — namely, washing your hands, using hand sanitizer and wearing a face covering when near other people. 

So… should I get one or not?

That really depends on how concerned you are about your current lifestyle. At its core, an air purifier is meant to get rid of odors in the air and help eliminate contaminants to help people with allergies breathe easier. Having said that, if you live in a home with other people and one of you is exposed, an air purifier can potentially help lower the chance of someone else contracting the virus in your same household. 

One last question: Would a humidifier work, too?

Yes! Humidifiers — which, at the most basic level, emit water vapor, therefore increasing humidity levels — have a host of benefits that include leaving your skin less dry and, of course, making it less likely for you to get sick. According to Health.com, researchers at the University of Sydney and Fudan University School of Public Health in Shanghai found “that a 10 percent decrease in humidity could double the chance of catching coronavirus, although their research focused on outdoor rather than indoor environments.” Which is great news, considering decent humidifiers go for around $60, a fraction of the price of an air purifier. 

But before you go running out to get one, keep in mind that, per the same report, “most modern homes have humidifiers built into their HVAC.” This is all to say that what you’ve heard about the benefits of these devices is by and large true, but if you’re living in a fairly new home, there’s a good chance you’re already reaping the benefits.

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