Can virus-zapping air purifiers make cruise ships, hotels and other indoor spaces safe?

Imagine a weapon that can zap 99.9% of airborne COVID-19 virus particles from any indoor space within 30 minutes.

Imagine if you knew that weapon was in continuous operation at your favorite restaurant, movie theater, office building or hotel.

Would you consider it a game-changer? Would you feel safe enough to resume indoor activities you’ve been avoiding since the pandemic hit last spring? Could it reinvigorate tourism-reliant South Florida businesses as the region awaits widespread vaccine distribution?

Such a weapon exists, one of its leading manufacturers says, and its use is increasing throughout the world. It’s based on a technology called bi-polar ionization, and AtmosAir Solutions, a Fairfield, Connecticut-based maker of indoor air cleaning systems, says it really is a game changer.

While traditional air filtration systems “catch and grab” incoming contaminants, bi-polar ionization sends electrically charged ions into indoor environments to “seek and destroy” virus particles in the air and on surfaces, said Steve Levine, AtmosAir Solutions’ president and CEO.

Last week, Norwegian Cruise Line announced plans to install the company’s virus-zapping technology aboard all 28 ships in its fleet, including those operated by its brands Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises. The technology will complement the cruise lines’ other efforts to prevent guests and crew members from contracting the virus when voyages resume sometime in 2021, Norwegian said.

Virgin Voyages is also installing AtmosAir’s technology aboard its two ships, the cruise line recently announced.

But the technology has its critics. Some experts in the world of air quality engineering and atmospheric chemistry point out there’s not enough publicly available data to prove that bi-polar ionization can eliminate the coronavirus, that it does not produce harmful byproducts, or that the charged ions it sends out are safe for people to breathe into their lungs.

And it’s not being universally embraced within the cruise industry. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines looked at the technology but decided there wasn’t enough available research to justify adopting it. Ultimately, the company decided to upgrade its air filtration systems using traditional filters capable of trapping virus-sized contaminants, said Patrik Dahlgren, the cruise line’s senior vice president for global marine operations.

Carnival Cruise Line has not yet announced what technology will be used for its planned “high-efficiency air filtration system” upgrades planned for its fleet.

While ionizing air filtration systems have existed for years, AtmosAir Solutions’ patented bi-polar ionization system is based on technology that the company brought to the United States from Europe in 2007, said Steve Levine, the company’s president and CEO.

AtmosAir sells systems that can operate as standalone units or can be integrated within a room’s heating and air conditioning system. For about $1,500, consumers can have one of the systems integrated into their home air conditioning systems.

How it works

It consists of one or more tubes that pull oxygen molecules out of the air and convert them into positively- and negatively-charged ions that travel through indoor spaces and attach themselves to microparticles like mold, bacteria, allergens and viruses. They can also attach in clusters to particles that can transport the virus, like dust particles and breath droplets.

The clustering causes a chemical reaction on cell membranes that deactivates the virus. The clustering also makes the microparticles too heavy to remain airborne, forcing them to fall to the floor or a nearby surface so they can no longer be inhaled.

“It’s continually sanitizing and disinfecting, taking particulates like bacteria, viruses and germs out of the air at a faster rate [than traditional filtration systems],” Levine said. “In offices, we see reduced absenteeism, increased productivity and a more sustainable environment.

Levine says the system cannot prevent transmission of the virus. Even in rooms where it’s being used, the virus can still spread from person to person via respiratory droplets emitted when people shout, sing, sneeze, cough, or breathe near each other. Social distancing and mask wearing will still be necessary where the systems are in use, he said. So will the need to keep washing hands, wiping surfaces, and changing air filters in heating and air conditioning systems.,

“We’re not saying it’s a silver bullet. Nothing is 100%,” Levine said in an interview. “This is an additional layer of protection that everyone needs so they can go back to work, back to school, or back on cruise ships again.”

He says AtmosAir’s system differs from “passive” devices like typical air purifiers, which use fans to pull air through filters. While modern HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters can capture 97% or 98% of the particles that pass through them, bi-polar ionization systems capture the contaminants, including dust, “in the spaces where people are,” which helps people with allergies, asthma and other breathing issues, he said.

The technology is also less expensive to install in older buildings with filtration systems that cannot easily be retrofitted for HEPA filters, he said.

Who’s buying it

About 8,000 locations across the country have installed one of AtmosAir Solution’s bi-polar ionization systems, Levine said. In Florida, they include Seminole Hard Rock casino, Saint Andrews’s School in Boca Raton, some Miami office buildings, Tampa Aquarium, and, outside of Florida, the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. It’s also in use at numerous airport terminals, including Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, LaGuardia in New York, and Los Angeles International Airport, Levine said.

Some of those installations predate COVD-19. At Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, two systems predating the pandemic are in limited use in two areas, a spokeswoman said.

The Seminole Tribe installed them in casinos years ago to reduce tobacco smoke, spokesman Gary Bitner said. The technology “has definitely improved air quality in the casinos,” he said.

Interest has skyrocketed in recent months among businesses seeking to assure employees and customers that they can return to safe environments, Levine said.

Since the pandemic, the company has installed systems in movie theaters, fitness facilities, restaurants, nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The company is currently developing a proposal to outfit a correctional facility in Jacksonville, Levine said.

Some scientists are skeptical

As promising as AtmosAir Solutions’ claims sound, critics caution against accepting them as settled science.

Currently, no testing or certification programs exist to subject claims to rigorous analysis by independent laboratories, either operated by the federal government or industry trade associations, said Delphine Farmer, an associate professor of atmospheric chemistry at Colorado State University.

While AtmosAir Solutions says testing by the respected Microchem Laboratory in Round Rock, Texas, in June showed that the system can capture 99.92% of airborne coronavirus particles, Farmer points out that the company paid Microchem to conduct the tests.

Microchem declined to comment on the tests for this story, saying in an email that it “does not comment on tests done for its clients.”

Microchem’s tests, Farmer said, “were not done in the real world.” She added, “I’m shocked that so many large organizations and companies are buying these devices when there’s no proof they work.”

Farmer said she’s concerned about the number of schools across the country installing the systems. “We know nothing about how they work and what they do other than what the companies tell us, and there’s very little information that the companies provide.”

While she’s skeptical about claims that the ions are removing virus particles, she says it’s likely they produce chemical byproducts, such as aldehydes and other organic compounds. Whether or not they are potentially harmful is not known “because there’s no agency in charge of testing,” she said.

If the ions are able to attach themselves chemically to bacteria, viruses and other particles, “you have to wonder what they are doing to the cells in your lungs.”

For most consumers, anything more than a simple air purifier that works by a fan drawing air through a high-quality filter, combined with increased ventilation, is overkill, she says.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and AIr-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), a global association that develops air quality guidelines for the building and construction industries, takes no official position on bi-polar ionization or other systems that claim to use charged ions to clean air. In a guidance document released during the pandemic, ASHRAE said “convincing scientifically-rigorous, peer-reviewed studies do not currently exist on this emerging technology.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, responding to a request by ASHRAE for its position on bi-polar ionization, said the health agency does not provide recommendations for or against any manufacturer’s product. “As with all emerging technologies, consumers are encouraged to exercise caution and to do their homework,” the CDC said.

Kathleen Owen, an air filtration consultant for ASHRAE, said she shares Farmer’s concerns about not knowing how ionization technologies might affect peoples’ lungs. While she’s seen promising data on air cleaning capabilities of ionization, more study is needed on potential health effects, she said.

“I’m hoping, as a result of COVID, that there will be more light shone into the air cleaner world, and I would hope that would result in development of some sort of certification process,” she said.

Levine said he’s aware of concerns about the lack of verifiable third-party testing and certification. He said AtmosAir Solutions looks forward to working with ASHMAE and the CDC to develop industrywide testing standards. “We believe in validation and verification,” he said.