Winning on Health and Climate Means Embracing Cutting Edge Indoor Air Tech | Opinion

The COVID-19 epidemic hasn't just challenged our health care system and our economy. It's also challenged us to be smarter about how we reopen the world. We must be thoughtful and innovative. This means more thoroughly sanitizing indoor air spaces without using drastically more energy. Otherwise, we risk solving a health care disaster while creating an environmental one.

To reduce the spread of pathogens like COVID-19, we'll have to do better at making indoor air spaces healthier. At the same time, if we want to win on climate change, we'll have to significantly reduce the energy burden of heating and cooling homes and businesses. In fact, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said the single biggest behavior change we'll need to reduce CO2 emissions is cutting our energy use for space heating, a move that could save 457 million metric tons of CO2. We can save another 95 million metric tons by addressing the cooling side of air conditioning.

One of the leading trade associations for the heating and ventilating industry is leading us in the opposite direction on indoor air sanitation in the post-COVID world. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, better known as ASHRAE, was formed in 1959 and despite "American" in its name, has since become the dominant global authority on heating and cooling issues. They've issued guidelines that homes and businesses should use more high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to catch smaller pathogens and that property managers should keep HVAC systems running around the clock, since filters only work when air is flowing. This presents obvious problems for beating climate change.

In addition to driving up energy usage for governments, businesses and the economy in general, experts have warned that increases in filtration static pressure also lead to increased energy consumption. That means following ASHRAE's current advice is a recipe for driving up CO2 emissions, and simultaneously runs afoul of long-standing guidance for green buildings practices.

Fortunately, better solutions are available that provide a cutting edge ability to clean indoor air and doesn't increase energy use. Advanced photocatalytic processes kill the pathogens that spread severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) that causes COVID-19 ailments. The methodology uses sub-microscopic particles in a super-charged state to locate and neutralize pathogens, avoiding massive energy consumption by the process of sucking air through a filter or using harmful ultraviolet light.

children and a parent play
South Korean children and a parent play in a room with an air purifier (left) at a kids cafe on March 9, 2019, in Seoul, South Korea. Jean Chung/Getty Images

One company, called ActivePure developed and deployed proprietary technology that kills 99.99 percent of pathogens in the air in a standard disinfection hierarchy. The ActivePure technology has been cleared by the FDA as a Class II medical device. Studies have shown that devices using advanced photocatalytic processes reduce dangerous airborne pathogens, that cause COVID-19, by at least 99.9 percent, within 30 minutes, even with people present.

Importantly, advanced photocatalytic processes aren't just a hopeful technology. It's working right now, protecting astronauts in the NASA space program involved with new innovations in space exploration. Critical health care facilities are also counting on advanced photocatalytic processes. Alternity Healthcare uses the technology as part of their program to protect patients from COVID-19. Further, Cleveland Clinic is now conducting a double blind two-year clinical study on more than 67,000 patients to determine how technologies like ActivePure's devices can reduce infections in surgical operating room procedures.

Advanced photocatalytic technology is helping protect young kids too, with early childhood education centers in at least seven states employing the technology. ABC Kiddie Kampus in Pittston, Pennsylvania, and Bright&Early Daycare in West Hartford, Connecticut, are both using advanced photocatalytic devices to give parents peace of mind. This is an important measure, as Rear Admiral Kenneth Moritsugu, former deputy surgeon general of the United States, explained that schools should look for "technologies with filters that work at the viral level or deploy microscopic particles to search and destroy pathogens in the air and on surfaces rather than just trying to filter them out." He also advised that administrators should insist on approaches with FDA clearance.

For cities and other local governments, advanced photocatalytic processes offers distinct advantages over HEPA filters or other technology. That's why the town of Saugus, Massachusetts, and the police department of Toledo, Oregon, are both using the technology to sanitize indoor air without increasing their energy use by relying solely on HVAC approaches.

The reality is that using ASHRAE's proposed solutions isn't a sustainable path in terms of climate, nor environmental health outcomes. As The Wall Street Journal reported, pushing and pulling building air around the old fashion way leads to "significantly higher energy bills and an uptick in emissions that can contribute to climate change."

We can't roll back 50 years of progress in sustainable building practices by simply telling property owners to run their HVAC systems more. We need to be more thoughtful, relying on advanced photocatalytic technologies can give us the best of both worlds. If we pursue a smart approach, we can emerge from COVID-19 healthier, reducing emissions and ultimately more sustainable.

Dr. Michael K. Dorsey is a co-founder and director of the Center for Environmental Health and former Sierra Club board member.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.