Ionization air-cleaning devices have been touted by local nursing homes and even an Arizona megachurch that hosted President Donald Trump as a sure-fire means of halting the spread of coronavirus. 

But experts caution there’s no sure thing in the battle against the virus.

“Everybody wants an easy fix,” said Laura Geer, chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at Brooklyn’s SUNY Downstate School of Public Health and an expert in exposure assessment. “We all want to believe in anything that will help us return to normal.”

Ionization purifiers are just the latest of a host of COVID-prevention methods that researchers warn may rely more on users’ wishful thinking than sound science.

Geer pointed out devices such as electrostatic sprayers and ionization air purifiers are “not tested on SARS-CoV-2 [the scientific name for the virus that causes COVID-19], as this is a novel [brand new] coronavirus.” The Centers for Disease Control &  Prevention (CDC) has only made the virus available for testing to infectious disease and microbiology researchers.  

“The devices are not endorsed by the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], and have not been approved by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] to kill SARS-CoV-2,” Geer told THE CITY. “I would think NIOSH would have something to say about this, too,” she added, referring to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Kristen Nordlund, a spokesperson for NIOSH/CDC, referred to EPA guidelines noting, “The EPA does not certify air-cleaning devices.” 

Coronavirus-Killing Claims

For facilities like nursing homes that are looking to welcome back and protect an anxious public, the devices appear heaven-sent. 

Maryellen McKeon, senior vice president of operations for Ultimate Care Assisted Living Management, gushed about electrostatic sprayers and iWave-R ionization devices to be installed in the company’s facilities across the tri-state area.

“iWave-R is the world’s first self-cleaning, no-maintenance needlepoint-bipolar ionization generator designed specifically for treating air in residential duct A/C systems,” she wrote in a recent email to residents and representatives, borrowing phrases from the manufacturer’s website. “As the air flows past the iWave-R, positive and negative ions actively purify the supply air, killing mold, bacteria and viruses in the coil and living space.” 

Nu-Calgon, the manufacturer of the iWave-R, said in a press release, however, “It is important to note that we make no medical claims.”

Similar ionization technology was hailed by the pastor and chief financial officer of the Dream City Church north of Phoenix, Ariz., which hosted a student rally Tuesday.

In a since-deleted Facebook and Instagram video, first reported by TMZ, church officials claimed a Clean Air EXP ionization unit, developed by “some members of our church,” would kill “99.9 percent of COVID-19 within 10 minutes.”

“You can know if you come here that you’ll be safe and protected,” Pastor Luke Barnett assured prospective rally attendees in the video.  “Thank God for great technology!”

Clean Air EXP officials, though, tamped down expectations via the company’s website, noting “recent confusion around the claims made by one of our customers.

“We do not… eliminate COVID-19 at this time,” the message said.

FDA Washes Hands

In March, the FDA issued an enforcement policy that noted, “During the declared public health emergency, FDA does not intend to object to the distribution and use of sterilizers, disinfectant devices, and air purifiers that are intended to be effective at killing the SARS-CoV-2 virus but do not already have FDA marketing authorization.”

Geer stressed that although the FDA has made allowances for such devices during the pandemic, “This does not mean that they are safe and effective on this particular virus.”

A couple walks along Houston Street during the coronavirus outbreak, April 17, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The EPA also notes that ozone, which can irritate lungs, is produced indirectly by ion generators. “There is no difference, despite some marketers’ claims, between ozone in smog outdoors and ozone produced by these devices,” according to the agency. 

Relatively low amounts of this colorless gas can cause chest pain, coughing, shortness of breath and throat irritation. Ozone may also worsen chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma. 

The size of the area to be treated by ionization air cleaners and electrostatic sprayers also affects their performance. 

“Use of these devices may be designed for small-scale disinfection application,” Geer added, “and are not tested for, nor intended to prevent, person-to-person transmission, particularly in densely populated spaces.”

Proper ventilation in indoor spaces, without any additional devices, may help mitigate viral spread, she noted.

“The old adage ‘dilution is the solution to pollution’ can also be applied in terms of dilution of air to limit person-to-person transmission, along with social distancing and wearing of masks,” Geer said.

Still Waiting for Results

As THE CITY reported last month, the New York City Transit Authority used a product in its overnight subway scrub-downs that is not on the EPA’s list of approved and vetted antimicrobial disinfectant for COVID-19 cleanups. 

The CDC advises that EPA-approved antimicrobials “are an important part of reducing the risk of exposure to COVID-19.”

Four years ago, the company that makes Goldshield 75 was forced to settle a complaint filed by the EPA alleging that it made false statements about the effectiveness of the spray, records show.

MTA workers clean a subway while the system was closed overnight, May 11, 2020. Credit: Tim Minton/MTA

The settlement required the firm to specify that the product “does not protect users or others against … disease-causing bacteria.”

Last month, Mary Mears, a spokesperson for the EPA, said the agency was “collaborating” with the NYCTA and other transit agencies on evaluating disinfectants and that preliminary results were expected in June.

As of Wednesday, the EPA said it was still testing Goldshield and other antimicrobial agents used in the subway system.

In conjunction with other cleaning methods, the MTA is also testing 230 miniature portable, ultraviolet UV-C lamps provided by PURO Lighting, a start-up, to zap the virus.

In an interview with WABC, Dr. David Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center, said, “The UV light that’s going to be used in the overnight subway cleaning is very efficient at killing the virus responsible for COVID-19.”

Geer pointed out that while the light may kill the virus on surfaces, it would not prevent person-to-person transmission once riders boarded.

“That seems to be a big part of the problem here,” she said. “People are conflating disinfection of surfaces with person-to-person transmission. They’re two different things.”