Is Purified Air The Answer to Our Problems?

Showing my age, I know, but one of my favourite tunes of yesteryear was the Hollies in 1974 singing ‘All I need is the air that I breathe’. Could this become a popular slogan for the way we deal with COVID in 2022, I wonder?

In April last year, the World Health Organisation updated its guidance on COVID-19, placing far greater emphasis on inhaling airborne droplets as a way of transmitting the virus than touching contaminated surfaces. Soon afterwards, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made similar changes to its own COVID-19 guidance, also placing the inhalation of aerosols firmly at the top of its list of how the disease spreads.

Fast forward and the NHS now has a preferred supplier for portable, hospital-grade air purifiers, developed for Scandinavian hospitals, and trusted, so the supplier claims, by businesses globally. The product claims to trap and destroy 99.97% of airborne bacteria and viruses, including the Coronavirus family. The HSE’s position on air purification units in general is positive, if cautious, saying they have a role to play, but that ‘these units are not a substitute for ventilation. Organisations should prioritise any areas identified as poorly ventilated for improvement in other ways before thinking about using an air cleaning device.’

So how does this affect the cleaning industry? Well, on the one hand, anything that reassures people that they can occupy buildings safely and confidently is clearly to be welcomed. Yes, there will always be people who worry about air being recirculated that has in any way been ‘treated,’ even though the units available are just trapping and killing the virus. And, if anything, the next logical step – the circulation of antiviral ‘chemicals’ in air-conditioning systems – could potentially be a much harder sell. Then there is the problem of how to install any such technology in mobile locations such as buses and trains. When all is said and done, however, what the current wave of infections has shown us is that stopping transmission is critical in enabling the economy to function properly without mass absenteeism due to self-isolation and we need to enlist the support of technology to achieve this. Any cleaning contractor will be grateful for measures that reduce infection amongst our own staff, particularly if it means, for example, early morning cleaners going to work in a building where a purification system has been switched on all night.

Looked at from another angle, we have of course become expert at a new style of ‘anti-COVID’ cleaning that combines multiple techniques in order to keep buildings safe and one could argue that this expertise might be devalued if a slam dunk, anti-viral air cleaning system is introduced that results in our expertise being downplayed. Realistically, however, I do not see that happening. The quantum leap in the perception of cleaning as something that guarantees hygienic cleanliness alongside visible cleanliness is surely here to stay. It could potentially be years before air purification technology becomes widespread and economical, whilst transmission by touching a contaminated surface will most likely be with us for some time yet, meaning that regular cleaning will remain vitally important in combatting the disease.

Whatever direction the technology takes us, it feels like we desperately need some positivity in order to start restoring the confidence of building users. As an industry, we are working hard to maintain hygienic environments. Let us have some good news, please, from the Government and employers to support the idea that buildings can be occupied safely provided that sensible precautions are taken.

Published in February issue of Cleaning & Maintenance.