Indoor air pollutants are unwanted, sometimes harmful materials in the air. Indoor air pollution is among the top five environmental health risks. Usually the best way to address this risk is to control or eliminate the sources of pollutants, and to ventilate a home with clean outdoor air. The ventilation method may, however, be limited by weather conditions or undesirable levels of contaminants contained in outdoor air. If these measures are insufficient, an air cleaning device may be useful. Air cleaning devices are intended to remove pollutants from indoor air. Some air cleaning devices are designed to be installed in the ductwork of a home’s central heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system to clean the air in the whole house. Portable room air cleaners can be used to clean the air in a single room or specific areas, but they are not intended for whole-house filtration. The following pages will provide information on different types of air cleaning devices and how they work.
Indoor Air Pollutants
Pollutants that can affect air quality in a home fall into the following categories:
•Particulate matter includes dust, smoke, pollen, animal dander, tobacco smoke, particles generated from combustion appliances such as cooking stoves, and particles associated with tiny organisms such as dust mites, molds, bacteria, and viruses.
•Gaseous pollutants come from combustion processes. Sources include gas cooking stoves, vehicle exhaust, and tobacco smoke. They also come from building materials, furnishings, and the use of products such as adhesives, paints, varnishes, cleaning products, and pesticides.
What Types of Pollutants Can an Air Cleaner Remove?
There are several types of air cleaning devices available, each designed to remove certain types of pollutants.
Two types of air cleaning devices can remove particles from the air — mechanical air filters and electronic air cleaners. Mechanical air filters remove particles by capturing them on filter materials.
High efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters are in this category. Electronic air cleaners such as electrostatic precipitators use a process called electrostatic attraction to trap charged particles. They draw air through an ionization section where particles obtain an electrical charge. The charged particles then accumulate on a series of flat plates called a collector that is oppositely charged. Ion generators, or ionizers, disperse charged ions into the air, similar to the electronic air cleaners but without a collector. These ions attach to airborne particles, giving them a charge so that they attach to nearby surfaces such as walls or furniture, or attach to one another and settle faster.
Gaseous Pollutant Removal
Gas-phase air filters remove gases and odors by using a material called a sorbent, such as activated carbon, which adsorbs the pollutants. These filters are typically intended to remove one or more gaseous pollutants from the airstream that passes through them. Because gas-phase filters are specific to one or a limited number of gaseous pollutants, they will not reduce concentrations of pollutants for which they were not designed. Some air cleaning devices with gas-phase filters may remove a portion of the gaseous pollutants and some of the related hazards, at least on a temporary basis. However, none are expected to remove all of the gaseous pollutants present in the air of a typical home. For example, carbon monoxide is a dangerous gaseous pollutant that is produced whenever any fuel such as gas, oil, kerosene, wood, or charcoal is burned, and it is not readily captured using currently available residential gas-phase filtration products.
Some air cleaners use ultraviolet (UV) light technology intended to destroy pollutants in indoor air. These air cleaners are called ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) cleaners and photocatalytic oxidation (PCO) cleaners. Ozone generators that are sold as air cleaners intentionally produce ozone gas, a lung irritant, to destroy pollutants.
Ozone is a lung irritant that can cause adverse health effects.
•UVGI cleaners use ultraviolet radiation from UV lamps that may destroy biological pollutants such as viruses, bacteria, allergens, and molds that are airborne or growing on HVAC surfaces (e.g., found on cooling coils, drain pans, or ductwork). If used, they should be applied with, but not as a replacement for, filtration systems.
•PCO cleaners use a UV lamp along with a substance, called a catalyst, that reacts with the light. They are intended to destroy gaseous pollutants by converting them into harmless products, but are not designed to remove particulate pollutants.
•Ozone generators use UV light or an electrical discharge to intentionally produce ozone. Ozone is a lung irritant that can cause adverse health effects. At concentrations that do not exceed public health standards, ozone has little effect in removing most indoor air contaminants. Thus, ozone generators are not always safe and effective in controlling indoor air pollutants. Consumers should instead use methods proven to be both safe and effective to reduce pollutant concentrations, which include eliminating or controlling pollutant sources and increasing outdoor air ventilation.
Visit http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/ozonegen.html for more information on ozone generators sold as air cleaners.
John P. Lapotaire, CIEC
Certified Indoor Environmental Consultant
Microshield Environmental Services, LLC