As we enter a week that the surgeon general says could be “our Pearl Harbor moment,” it’s important to keep track of helpful and true information about the coronavirus, and what’s an outright scam. While doing research for an article on our favorite air purifier, it came to our attention that some shady manufacturers are trying to pawn off their ozone generators as a way to disinfect your home. Let’s be clear: you should not buy one of these machines for COVID-19 (or any medical reason,) as they could potentially hurt you.
What is an Ozone generator — If you look at the Google Trends chart above, you can see that searches for ozone generators have gone through the roof thanks to coronavirus. But what is an ozone generator, and how is it different from an ionizing air filter?
Ozone is a molecule with three oxygen atoms instead of the normal two that we associate with oxygen in the air. Scientific American describes it well:
"Research explains that ozone emanates from fertilizers and pollutants as well as natural sources. An electrical charge — from lightning or a man-made source such as an electrical generator — splits atmospheric nitrogen and oxygen molecules into separate atoms. Some of these recombine into nitric oxide, and this in turn reacts with other atmospheric chemicals, occasionally producing a molecule made up of three oxygen atoms—ozone, or O3. [...] The scent of ozone heralds stormy weather because a thunderstorm's downdrafts carry O3 from higher altitudes to nose level."
As mentioned above, an ozone generator is an electrical device specifically designed to create ozone. The problem is, exposure to ozone can irritate or damage your lungs. Here’s what the EPA says about human exposure to ozone:
"When inhaled, ozone can damage the lungs. Relatively low amounts can cause chest pain, coughing, shortness of breath and throat irritation. Ozone may also worsen chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma and compromise the ability of the body to fight respiratory infections. People vary widely in their susceptibility to ozone. Healthy people, as well as those with respiratory difficulty, can experience breathing problems when exposed to ozone."
Coughing? Shortness of breath? Throat irritation? Sounds like that's exactly the opposite of what you'd want with a deadly respiratory virus overtaking the planet.
Ozone versus ionization — You will see that many air filters include a feature that “ionizes” the air. Essentially, ionizing the air produces negatively charged gas ions with the hope that particulates like dust will electromagnetically stick to furniture and the floor. In reality, studies have found that this doesn’t really have any appreciable benefit. Here are some results of studies put together in a meta analysis by independent researcher Lance A. Wallace:
"An early study of a negative ion generator found no further reduction of pollen, mold, and bacterial counts beyond the reduction provided by an air conditioning unit (Spiegelman et al., 1961). Later, Repace (1983) used a very powerful multi-needle device mounted on the ceiling and obtained a 96% reduction in environmental tobacco smoke (ETS). Nogrady and Furnass (1983) tested an ionizer for its effect on bronchial asthma in 20 adults. Sham or active ionizers were placed in subjects’ bedrooms for two 8-week periods separated by a 4-week “washout” period.
Although the ionizers produced 100-fold increases in ion density, no effects were seen in lung function, symptoms, or medication use. A decade later, Warner et al., (1993) performed a similar double blind placebo controlled study on 20 adults, with one difference being the use of two ionizers, one in the bedroom and one in the living room. Once again there was a major increase in ion density but no effect on lung function, symptoms, or medication use."
Here’s where things get confusing: ionizers do produce very small amounts of ozone as an unwanted byproduct of the ionization process. But in high quality air filters this should be well controlled, and in the one we recommend you can just turn ionization off completely.
The scam — There are currently 335,000 Google results for “ozone generator covid-19” and 359,000 for “ozone generator coronavirus.” In the graph above you can see that people are suddenly very interested in ozone generators. Here’s what Wikipedia says about ozone generation as a disinfectant:
"At high concentrations ozone can be toxic to air-borne bacteria, and may destroy or kill these sometimes infectious organisms. However, the required concentrations are sufficiently toxic to humans and animals that the US FDA declares that ozone has no place in medical treatment and has taken action against businesses that violate this regulation by offering therapeutic ozone generators or ozone therapy. Ozone is a highly toxic and extremely reactive gas. A higher daily average than 0.1 ppm (100 ppb, 0.2 mg/m3) is not recommended and can damage the lungs and olfactory bulb cells directly."
So yes, you can use ozone to kill bacteria, but the coronavirus is a virus, and even if it were a bacteria, huffing the amount of ozone needed to kill it would undoubtedly damage your lungs. But that’s not stopping ozone generator manufacturers from speculating that their products might kill the coronavirus. Take Ozonics for example; here’s what’s written on the company’s blog (emphasis ours):
"Ozone is the tri-atomic form of oxygen and is a naturally occurring gas. Ozone is harnessed in scent control applications because it bonds to the molecules it contacts, like scent molecules, and destroys them. The process is the same with airborne bacteria and viruses: when the right amount of ozone is deployed for the right amount of time, it destroys the bacteria and viruses it contacts. This includes viruses like COVID-19. Since the coronavirus can survive on surfaces for days, it’s crucial to have an effective way to disinfect your household."
This is wrong. This company, and many of the others that are jumping on this bandwagon, are misleading consumers and trying to capitalize on people’s fear of coronavirus. Don’t get played: follow the EPA and the CDC’s guidelines.