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Can Air Purifiers Be Harmful?

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A lmost everywhere you read about air purification systems, only the health benefits they provide are highlighted. While undoubtedly efficient in their operation and reliable for air pollution reduction up to a point, depending on the model in question, the question remains – Can air purifiers pose any sort of threat? Are these systems harmful to your health? These are questions you need answering before you acquire as health repercussions might be dire, and that’s a risk you shouldn’t take. To keep you informed not only on the good sides but the bad ones as well, we have put together this article where we will take a deeper look at the negative aspects of air cleaners.

Can Air Cleaners Worsen Health Conditions?

The short answer to this question is quite counterproductive – yes and no! Yes, in the sense that some air cleaners can indeed aggravate health conditions and be harmful to you, but this only happens under specific circumstances that we will go over in detail immediately. Thus, as long as you pick a system that works for you and make sure to use it as instructed, there are no health repercussions to worry your mind with.

Another question that is likely on your mind is whether or not air purifiers are safe for babies. There are systems specially designed for nurseries, but as a general rule of thumb, as long as there is no ozone production involved with the system’s operation, you can safely go ahead and run it in the same room with the child.

Ozone Production

Ozone air cleaners and the concept of ozone

Aside from systems that exclusively produce ozone in their operation to mask foul smells, other systems produce traces of ozone, in slighter quantities indeed, like ionic air purifiers. These are safer, however, and generally don’t pose a health threat, as opposed to generators that can be quite detrimental to human health.

You are likely familiar with ozone from the ozone layer, but it is found on ground level too, not only produced by certain air purifiers. This is a highly reactive gas, however, and when it interacts with respiratory system molecules, it leads to health repercussions that will likely make you reconsider whether acquiring a product that produces it is worth the money.

What are the repercussions of inhaling ozone?

Interesting fact: Did you know that ozone generators and certain ozone-generating are cleaners got banned back in 2010 in California, that interdiction not being lifted to this day? This alone should tell you just how dangerous ozone is when inhaled.

Moving on to repercussions, we start with the most severe reaction, which is seen in individuals who suffer from respiratory illness. Will it make allergies worse? Yes! Will it cause asthma attacks? Yes! What you might not know is that ozone is quite a potent irritating agent that amplifies the symptoms of asthma and allergy sufferers, even leading to attacks occurring on a more often basis. This isn’t all as even in healthy individuals it can lead to the development of respiratory health problems as ozone produced by air purification systems irritates the lungs.

As this irritating agent damages the respiratory tracts, it gives you a sore throat and makes ingesting any food or liquid uncomfortable as a result. You will experience shortness of breath and start wheezing as well. High ozone concentrations cause you to even feel pain or burning in the chest as you take deep breaths, which can be quite alarming. Another common symptom is that of chest tightness, which inevitably makes breathing a lot more difficult.

Research by the government of the United States has uncovered an alarming fact – that ozone, in high concentrations and when inhaled regularly, causes cancer.

Common immediate symptoms and effects of ozone inhalation:

  • Difficulty breathing;
  • Coughing (usually dry coughs);
  • Throat irritation and discomfort.

How long does it take for ozone to dissipate?

You can use an ozone generating system only if you run it when you are not in the same room with the system. Doing so raises the question of how long you have to wait. To make sure that you are in the clear, if ozone concentrations are high, you should wait up to 4 hours. In case concentrations are at a lower level, 1-2 hours should suffice for the ozone to become breathable oxygen.

Inefficiency in Trapping Pollutants

In the battle of filter versus filterless air purifiers, generally, the winners are filter-based systems as their action of trapping polluting particles makes them more efficient at air cleaning. There’s the consideration that most systems are comprised of multiple filter media and technologies, so you can see pollutant reduction of almost 100% with these systems. However, they too can become dangerous without you even realizing it, but this happens only under a single circumstance – when you forget to maintain the air filter as instructed.

What happens when you overlook maintenance?

With these systems, you will either be required to routinely change certain filter media, like the HEPA filter, activated carbon filter, and pre-filter, or you will have to wash/clean some of the media used in the purification process. Neglecting to do so causes the air cleaner to drop in performance, which means that you will breathe in contaminated air without even being aware of it. In some cases, when the filters get extra-dirty, the polluting particles might even be released back into the air, which immediately poses a health threat for you.

Accumulation of Polluting Particulates

Now let’s move on to ionic air cleaners, the last category that can become a health threat.

How do air ionizers work?

As the name suggests, they release millions of ions into the air with the purpose of binding with positively charged particulates, making their mass heavier, which leads to the pollutants dropping to the ground or surfaces.

Interesting fact: Studies have highlighted that ions act as antidepressants, for individuals who suffer from mood disorders being an intelligent idea to use air ionizers as the systems can prove to be quite an effective treatment.

What happens to the pollutants?

Even though there are benefits to ionic air purifiers, their questionable operation might not make you as keen on using one. As aforementioned, it charges the polluting particles and makes them drop because of the added weight, sticking to the surfaces encountered in their path. What does this mean? That the particles don’t go away but rather just change their location – instead of lingering in the air, they sit on the floors, carpets, and furniture.

If you don’t routinely vacuum and clean, the dirt will build up and eventually come loose, returning into the air, so it’s a vicious circle from which you won’t benefit. Depending on the particles that you were dealing with from the start, this can take quite a negative toll on your health as you could develop respiratory conditions or aggravate pre-existing ones.

Are there any solutions?

Not really. You could go for a stronger ionizer as it will indeed chase away the pollutants for good. However, with these systems, there is another downside – the production of ozone. We previously covered the topic of ozone danger for human health, especially in asthma and allergy sufferers, so you can see why ionic air cleaners are not recommended. No matter how you put it, it’s not a good choice as either it doesn’t clean the air right, or it produces ozone, which is even worse.

How and What Air Purifiers Improve Health?

It’s not all bad news with these systems though, as you likely already know. Sure, while there are circumstances under which they can pose a health threat, the truth of the matter is that when used properly and if properly maintained, the benefits you reap are substantial.

Respiratory illness alleviation and prevention:

Whether you are suffering from allergies, asthma, or any other respiratory illness, you only benefit from using an air cleaner as it rids the air of irritants and particles that may trigger and worsen your condition. As long as it doesn’t generate ozone, which would make matters worse especially for asthmatics, positive results will be seen almost instantly. Moreover, in healthy individuals, it keeps them safe from developing respiratory health problems later down the road.

Recommended system type: All types of air purification systems, except for ozone generators. Air ionizers with high ozone emissions are excluded as well.

Removal of dust:

Dust in the air won’t only make the whole place look dirty as, at one point, the particles will settle on surfaces, but it doesn’t spell good news for your health either. House dust even harbors a “dark” secret in the sense that mites live in it, over 20 million Americans being allergic to the small bugs. As the removal of dust and dust mites is a health concern seeing how it can trigger violent allergic responses in sensitive individuals, you can see why you would benefit from using a specialized system.

Recommended system type: Aside from specialty air purifiers for dust removal, you can use any model that features a HEPA filter as the media specializes in the removal of these specks from the air.

Removal of allergens:

Allergy-triggering particles are all around us, in some seasons issues being aggravated as dust and pollen, two common allergens, are present in higher amounts in the air. Allergens that are irritant in their nature also pose a threat to asthma sufferers, causing their attacks to either amplify in numbers or severity.

Recommended system type: There are specialized air purifiers for allergies and asthma that you can use, and what almost all have in common is the use of HEPA media as this is the most effective filtration means when it comes to allergen reduction.

Removal of odors:

Foul odors indoors are quite common as their sources are plenty. Whether it’s mold growth in the basement that takes a toll on the entire house, the last meal you cooked, a stinky leftover in the fridge, the pet’s bed that has dirtied up a bit, or any other cause, what’s a certainty is that your home isn’t as inviting when unwanted odors take charge. In households where smokers reside it’s even worse as smoking doesn’t only leave a bad smell, but it fills the air with pollutants that can cause lung cancer.

Recommended system type: Air cleaners for odor reduction all have one thing in common, and that is a reliance on activated carbon filtration to trap odor-causing particles and leave the air smelling fresher. This is the ultimate media type in smell elimination, so keep in mind to seek it specifically for this issue.

Pet allergy prevention:

Let’s face it, no household should go without a pet as the furry ones make our lives better with their mere presence. But there are quite a lot of people who are allergic to cats or dogs most commonly, which makes it almost impossible for them to inhabit the same space as these animals do. If your allergies aren’t absurdly severe, you can coexist with a pet as there are systems that remove allergens coming from animals, and that harm your health.

Recommended system type: Generally, HEPA-based air cleaners are the ones that tackle this issue as the ability of the filter media to trap allergens and particles of all sizes down to 0.3 micrometers makes them perfect for households with pets.

F.A.Q.

Question #1: Do air purifiers give off radiation?

Answer: While the systems do indeed produce a small amount of EMF radiation, it’s nothing to concern your mind with as your health isn’t put in peril. There is no scientific support for claims that radiation is high or dangerous, so any source that says otherwise has no backing for this statement.

Question #2: Does it make the air dry?

Answer: No, air cleaners do not affect humidity levels in the slightest. Their operation is solely targeted toward pollution reduction, having no impact whatsoever on moisture in the air. If you have issues with low air humidity it’s likely because the air is cold, but not because of the purifier.

Question #3: Is it safe to sleep with it on?

Answer: As long as it doesn’t emit ozone or other by-products when it runs, case in which you shouldn’t be in the same room with it when it runs no matter what, you can go ahead and leave it on throughout the night, even 24/7 if you want to as it will only benefit you, clearing the air of allergens and microorganisms.

Question #4: Can a dirty air cleaner make you sick?

Answer: If it is a filter-based system and you don’t replace or clean the media on time, the system will start to decrease in its performance quality, which leads to inefficiency in air cleaning, which ultimately can put your health at risk. There is the issue of it blowing out air that is much more contaminated than when it got sucked in, which is even more dangerous as it further compromises air quality.

Question #5: Are air purifiers safe for pets?

Answer: Pets don’t benefit from inhaling polluted air either, so the use of a system that improves air quality is beneficial for your furry companion as well. Nonetheless, ozone-producing systems pose an equally big threat for pets as they do for humans, so don’t leave your cat or dog in the same room with a system of the sort as it can be harmful.

Conclusion

In the end, the answer depends on a few factors. First, if you maintain the system properly and clean or replace the filter media when needed in case it’s a filter-based product. Second, if you make the right choice depending on air purification needs and opt for a system that targets pollutants in the air indoors. Third, whether or not it emits ozone and other by-products, case in which it is harmful to your health as it causes sore throat, allergy and asthma attacks, difficulties breathing, and more.

However, as long as you steer clear from air purifiers that have these issues and if you maintain the unit you use properly, there are only health benefits to reap as a result. The perfect product doesn’t exist, but some models come as close to perfection as it gets, and if you acquire a system that uses all the filter media needed to tackle polluting particles in the air and uses safe UV light sterilization to destroy microorganisms, your immune system and overall health will see a substantial improvement and you will be kept safe from complications when it comes to pre-existing respiratory illnesses.

Tobey Hunter
Tobey Hunter
Tobey is the editor-in-chief at Optima Institute, his prior experience as a niche product reviewer in air quality improvement systems helping shape his path to conduct thorough research toward selecting and analyzing products so that customers are satisfied with the provided recommendations. During his carrier, Tobey also gathered technical input that makes him well versed in understanding advancements in modern systems, helping readers in turn to better understand how modern devices help improve life quality.