A Straightforward Look at the Complexities of Airborne Viruses & COVID-19
With the global outbreak of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and the emergence of new variants, many are wondering whether air purifiers can provide protection against airborne viruses. Amid much confusion and misinformation, we want to clear the air and provide some useful facts about what air purifiers with True HEPA (H13) filters actually do to help remove viruses.
“Our greatest enemy right now is not the virus itself. It’s fear, rumors, and stigma. And our greatest assets are facts, reason, and solidarity,” said World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
First and foremost, if you believe you or someone in your household might have COVID-19, take immediate action by following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. And although coronavirus is at the forefront, it’s also important to note that these facts apply to all airborne viruses.
Can HEPA purifiers capture viruses? Yes. An air purifier equipped with a True HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air)-rated filter can capture a portion of airborne virus-sized particles. Once trapped, viruses cannot multiply on their own or remain infectious for long. But NO air purifier can completely protect you from a virus.
"HEPA air purifiers are a passive, 'always-on' way to improve the overall health of a breathing space that doesn’t require major lifestyle changes," said Alen CEO, Andy Graham.
In this article, we’ll break down the following:
- How HEPA filtration technology works
- Do HEPA filters remove viruses?
- How viruses spread & why air purifiers can help
- Why filtering airborne viruses is just one part of prevention
- How air purifiers support immune system health + tips to stay well
How HEPA Air Purifiers Really Work
Originally developed in support of cleanrooms for atomic energy development, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) created HEPA as a specification for suppliers of filtration products based on particle removal effectiveness, requiring them to remove 99.97% of particles 0.3 microns and above. (Alen True HEPA filters exceed that standard, removing 99.99% of particles down to 0.1 microns). Filters are commonly perceived as nets or a screen that will stop objects larger than the smallest holes while letting air through. That's a misconception.
HEPA filters trap particles much differently than a simple screen or net.
Here’s the reality: HEPA filters are a complex weave of tiny fibers that carry an electrostatic charge which attracts bypassing particles—more like a magnet than a net. The smaller the fiber with the greater charge coefficient, the greater the likelihood of trapping ever smaller particles. All of this is effective to the extent that air can be channeled through enough filter material without air bypassing around it.
An extreme close-up of HEPA material, courtesy of Engineering360.
How Do HEPA Air Purifiers Protect Against COVID-19 and Other Viruses?
The most current state of the art in filter material is referred to as True HEPA by the DOE. True HEPA removes 99.97% of particles at 0.3 microns or higher, but this is a helpful yet incomplete description of HEPA capability. Particles below 0.3 microns (like the COVID19 and H1N1 flu viruses) will be captured by electrostatic attraction to HEPA material or when they become lodged in the HEPA filter’s maze-like fibers. While larger particles travel in a straight line, impacting and become trapped by HEPA fibers, nanoparticles bounce around in a random pattern (known as Brownian motion) which causes them to collide and stick to HEPA fibers.
A diagram showing the size range of airborne particles.
So how effective are HEPA filters at removing particles below 0.3 microns? Research suggests they are highly effective at doing so. In fact, a 2016 study by NASA found that “HEPA filters are nearly 100% efficient at capturing the spectrum of particles down to the very smallest airborne particles.”
While this sounds promising, the key takeaway is that no purifier brand should claim they can completely protect people from viruses including COVID-19. Air purifiers are an additive protective measure if properly sized to a room.
The only way to truthfully claim how effectively an air purifier can remove airborne COVID-19 particles is by conducting proxy tests in controlled environments, which we did.
In 3rd party independent testing, the Alen BreatheSmart 75i removed over 99% of virus particles from a 1,050 CuFt test chamber within 20 minutes.
These bioaerosol lab tests used an FDA-approved live COVID-19 proxy. Tests also showed over 99% removal throughout the entire COVID-19 particle size range (.06 - .120 microns).
How Viruses Spread & Why Air Purifiers Can Help
Viruses including COVID-19 spread in the air by close person-to-person contact, especially when an infected person coughs or sneezes, according to the CDC. Virus particles are attached to and carried by water vapor, which are tiny droplets that float in a fine mist. The length of time virus particles can survive in the air and on surfaces depends on a range of factors such as the type of virus and surface it lands on, but many can remain infectious for several hours.
According to an open letter to the World Health Organization from 239 international scientists, published in the journal Science:
“Viruses in aerosols can remain suspended in air for many seconds to hours, like smoke, and be inhaled. They are highly concentrated near an infected person, so they can infect people most easily in close proximity."
"But aerosols containing infectious virus can also travel more than [two meters] and accumulate in poorly ventilated indoor air, leading to superspreading events."
The only way to reliably remove virus sized particles from the air is by circulating the entire volume of air in a room or enclosed space multiple times per hour to increase the likelihood that nearly weightless virus particles will enter the airflow of a filter.
“Essentially, we live and breathe 'boxes' at home, work, restaurants, schools, and play spaces,” said Graham. “Any shared-air breathing space would benefit from a right-sized air purifier with a well-sealed, high capacity True HEPA air filter.”
Why Filtering Airborne Viruses is Just One Part of Prevention
Yes, we sell air purifiers and have for 15 years, but we will be the first to recommend additional means of wellness and immune system support in addition to breathing pure air. For example, transmission by physical contact can only be addressed by other non-airborne measures.
COVID-19 can remain infectious for three hours when aerosolized into floating particles, according to another leading study. On surfaces, it remains viable for up to five days.
Likewise, “viruses can’t multiply on their own—they must infect the cells of a living creature,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told PBS.
What this means is that viruses trapped in an inorganic HEPA filter will stay there and die without further harmful effects. But since COVID-19 can live for up to three days on surfaces, it's critical that you follow ALL the CDC’s guidelines to prevent illness.
How Air Purifiers Support Immune System Health
Each airborne particle you inhale—whether it’s a pollutant, allergen, or pathogen—triggers a response by your immune system. By capturing those harmful particles and circulating clean air throughout your space, your body can focus on keeping your immune system strong day and night.
Breathing air that’s free from harmful particles is just one part of a wellness plan that should include ample sleep, plenty of purified water, and a balanced diet.
Air purifiers alone will not protect you from viruses, but they can contribute to an overall healthier indoor environment and better sleep. A purifier’s effectiveness depends on its ability to draw in contaminated air and circulate pure air throughout your entire breathing space or 'box.' Alen is proud to make top-rated purifiers that do just that—quietly and efficiently.
Alen provides a range of customizable True HEPA air purifiers so you can enjoy cleaner air and breathe better. Take a look at some of our best selling True HEPA air purifiers.
Alen HEPA Air Purifiers for the HomeShop Now
Your wellness is our highest priority. If you have any additional questions or concerns, please contact our air quality experts from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. CST M-F and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Call 800-630-2396, email email@example.com, or chat at alen.com.
IMPORTANT: Alen does not provide medical advice. Consult your doctor or a medical professional with healthcare questions.
@ Robert Atwell, Thank you for your comment. To set the context for our response let’s consider that the gold standard for germ-free purification exists in well designed and maintained hospital operating rooms. In those spaces, multiple HEPA filters and directional airflow are used. UV light is used as an optional additive measure. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-51914722.
However, to be effective, UV light rays must have a direct line of sight to the virus particle and for enough time. Given their relatively small size, air purifiers must pull a lot of airflow through an efficient filter in order to clean an entire space. Thus, the amount of time between air entering and exiting the unit is very short. To further complicate matters, it is well documented that the Coronavirus is particularly robust by its length of survival time on various surfaces. Will UV kill viruses? Yes, but to a far lesser degree of effectiveness than efficient HEPA filtration and whole-room airflow. We could offer this but have yet to find the balance between effectiveness and cost.
@Wayne Schulz, We appreciate your questions. Unfortunately, no, we do not make HVAC products. If you are wanting charcoal or carbon to remove smells and gases, HVAC-scale airflow would saturate that type of filter in a short amount of time. If you are attempting to reduce particles or deal with virus concerns, then there are companies that offer 4’ wide filter cartridges that mount on or near the air handler plenum. However, none of these are as effective in each room as a standalone HEPA air purifier.
@Jill R, Thank you for your question. The physics of HEPA fiber material properties to attract particles as referenced in the article apply similarly to vacuum bags. Otherwise, a vacuum cleaner would not be able to achieve enough airflow for suction to work properly. Vacuum bag manufacturer’s published specifications vary widely vs the air purifier industry since the focus is primarily on dust and dirt removal. In general, we would say that vacuum bag material in a mask offers superior filtration to a cotton mask while less effective than filter material used in air purifiers. All of this depends on how well the filter is sealed around the edges of facial contact which can be difficult to achieve with one size fits all masks.
@ Alireza Afshari, Thanks for reaching out. We don’t normally comment this early on new product development but given the urgency and pressing need, we wanted customers to know that we were acting with all deliberate speed on an improved capability. We will share more when as soon as we have testing results.
Leave a comment