When a person is described as being bipolar, we think of their depression, their changes in energy, sleep patterns, and mood swings. Bipolar Disorder is a mental illness we wouldn’t wish on anyone. No one wants to be bipolar and it certainly takes a special kind of person who wants to work with people who are bipolar. While bipolar disease, like AMD, has no cure, a number of new treatments can help those afflicted.
Let’s talk about an entirely different sort of bipolar. This bipolar might be a pretty simple answer to keeping us all safe in our workplaces and homes.
As the coronavirus pandemic now stretches into July, we are all looking for ways to keep ourselves, our families, our coworkers, our patients, our customers, and our communities protected from the coronavirus. As I write this, there have been almost 2.2 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. with almost 120,000 deaths. We are all cognizant of the dangers of the coronavirus and are all trying to do what we can to stay safe and healthy, especially with so many conflicted stories and opinions being bandied about on social media.
Being the beginning of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, most optical practices can prop open their doors and windows to let a constant flow of fresh air into their stores to help minimize the chances of breathing in anything bad. According to the EPA, the levels of pollutants indoors average 2 to 5 times more than outdoor levels and can exceed 100 times that of the outdoor levels of some pollutants. Since we spend roughly 90 percent of our time indoors, we all need to be extra mindful of the air we breathe in normal times, let alone during an airborne pandemic. Like so many other things, we tend to take the air we breathe for granted… until just a few months ago.
Modern buildings and retail environments are generally designed to promote social mixing. Even today’s modern offices are mostly are designed to be very open places where workers share space. By promoting interaction and chance encounters, these layouts are thought to generate more creativity and teamwork. At the same time, they are probably also really great for spreading viruses around. Think about the typical retail environment you’ve been in over the past year. Most every store space is laid out to fit as many people as the local fire department will allow, with every inch of the retail floor visible from some central counter or employee focal point.
I know optical practices that have added HEPA/UVC filtration systems to their stores to help clean the air everyone breathes. I have purchased 3 different filtration units myself. One for my office, one for the living room at home, where the family congregates after spending the day in different places, and a small portable one to travel with. HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filters have been used in a variety of environments for years. For a filter to qualify as HEPA, it must capture 99.97% of particles larger than 0.3 microns. Some HEPA filters are able to capture particles down to 0.1 microns, the size of our new constant companion, the coronavirus. To give everyone an idea of just how small the things we are speaking about are, look at the above illustration that compares a number of very very small items. Airlines have been using HEPA filters for quite some time. Many cars today come with HEPA filters for the passenger cabin. HEPA filters have been the gold standard in hospitals for quite some time. Of course, like any filter, HEPA filters need changing every 4-6 months to operate efficiently.
On a parallel note, this brings up the use of masks. As the illustration above shows, our new friend, the coronavirus is a very tiny little pain in the lung. Some compare the wearing of a cloth mask or even a standard surgical mask to attempting to block mosquitos with a chain-link fence. If the coronavirus traveled through the air all by itself, that would indeed be true. Viruses are never transmitted naked. A living virus is always attached to water droplets or aerosols. It is these tiny droplets we expel when we sneeze, cough, talk, or even exhale. Many of those water droplets are indeed blocked by even the most cloth masks. If you choose instead to wear a surgical mask, even better as they are more efficient, blocking items as small as 4 microns. So too are the KN95 and N95 masks, some of which block 95% of particles .3 microns or larger. Masks have been shown to work and if we really hope to have any impact in slowing the spread of the coronavirus as we open back up, we need to make sure we are all wearing them when out and about.
Putting it simply, we are not wearing masks as much to protect us from inhaling viruses, but from us exhaling them. Unless you have been completely and utterly isolated without human contact since your last COVID-19 test, that test is only as good as the date and time you took it. Since less than 25 million tests have been given in the U.S. in all of 2020, each of us should be wearing a mask when out in public. By the way, if you are looking at purchasing any mask with an exhale valve, why don’t you walk around town with no underwear and your zipper left down. Mask with exhale valves were not designed with any medical use in mind. They were designed to help people working in high particulate jobs like sanding from inhaling those tiny particles. They do nothing to block the pathogens you are exhaling with every breath. Wearers of those masks are doing nothing to slow the spread of COVID-19 and are instead deceptively giving others a very false sense of safety.
In the search for how to keep people safe, bipolar ionization is getting a serious second look. Based on a technology pioneered by Albert Einstein, bipolar ionization has been in commercial use since the 1970s. The process delivers ionized oxygen molecules into the air that can neutralize chemical compounds, mold, dust, smoke, and even viruses in a matter of minutes. Airborne particles are charged by the ions causing them to cluster and fall to the ground or be caught in standard HVAC filter systems as they cycle. The efficiency of many bipolar ionization systems in 99.9%. The ions produce a chemical reaction on the membrane surface of viruses and bacteria that immediately inactivates them.
In nature, ion densities run as high as 1,000 to 1,200 positive ions per cubic centimeter in the most pristine environments. Rural homes might see an average of 800 negative and 1000 positive (ions/cm3) The more crowded a city, the more air pollution in the environment, the lower the ion rate. Large cities and commercial buildings see ion levels drop by anywhere from 80% to 95%. A bipolar ionizer can dramatically improve the air we breathe without waiting for the air to be recirculated through filtering systems. Remember, no matter how clean and pure your air is, every time someone new walks through your doors, they could be contaminating that environment. A recent study from Japan concluded that the coronavirus is 20 times more likely to be spread indoors than outdoors. So having ions on the hunt for pathogens to attach to inside your home, office, or practice could be a very valuable thing indeed.
Bipolar ionization can clean the air in most areas in minutes. One test I saw mimicking a commercial aircraft fuselage showed 84.2% of the virus were rendered inactive within 10 minutes. At 15 minutes 92.6% of viruses were inactivated. In 30 minutes that percentage climbed to 99.4%. The ions generated travel through the air seeking particles to attach themselves to. Whether dirt, germs, or viruses are in the air or on surfaces, it appears from everything we’ve looked at that bipolar ionization purifies the air and the environment it comes in contact with far better than UVC or HEPA filters without the need to replace bulbs and filters as regularly. Since the ions are forced out through the HVAC system they attach and neutralize mold, bacteria, viruses, and other nasties, far quicker than waiting for the air to be recirculated through air filters or pass through a UV light system. Because it is an airborne cleaning system, this could help sanitize the frames and all exposed surfaces in any store or practice from active germs and viruses, minimizing the tedium of hand cleaning, wiping, and sanitizing frames and surfaces all day long. Undoubtedly even the most obsessive-compulsive germaphobe will miss a lot of surfaces when manually cleaning any store or practice all day long.
Google’s Headquarters in San Jose and Chicago have installed bipolar ionization systems. So too have the terminals at LaGuardia, O’Hare, LAX, and San Francisco airports. Several buildings at the University of Southern California have BPI systems as does Boeing, The Cleveland Clinic, Duke University Medical Center, Harvard University, and the Staples Center. Bipolar ionizers are not just for large commercial buildings. They make units that can be incorporated into home HVAC systems that cost only a few hundred dollars before installation. Another plus is bipolar ionization can be added to most forced-air HVAC systems without costly rebuilding or retrofitting at most facilities.
To be sure, these systems work primarily on the air that is being circulated by the HVAC system. They are not a magic protective envelope of safety. Each new person walking into this space will be expelling their own droplets and aerosols. Even with a bipolar ionization system, we still need to practice safe social distancing and the wearing of masks for the foreseeable future. It’s just nice to know there is a system that has something circulating through the air that is actively seeking particles to attach to and render them less effective by breaking apart their outer covering and weighing them down faster. Obviously the further away anyone stands from ventilation, the number of the ions circulating will be.
In a home or typical retail setting where a new person might be entering every 10 minutes or so, a bipolar ionization system can very quickly help clean the air everyone is breathing. In an environment like a church or meeting facility, where hundreds if not thousands of people are coming and going, unfortunately, there is nothing but social distancing and the mandating of masks that will help us all.
Returning to the more manageable single store, office, or home level, how much safer would you feel walking into a store or office if you knew they used a system like this? How much more likely would you be to travel if you knew the airlines and hotels were using this technology to clean the air you breathe? Would your customers feel better coming to you, knowing your air was cleaner than your competitors? I hope by this fall they are making small portable office or room size units and I can replace the fancy HEPA/UVC devices I am now using. Bipolar ionization could very well be the game-changer we are all seeking to help us feel better about the air we breathe and share with our coworkers, patients, customers, and families.