Exploring UV Light
UV Light has picked up steam as another potentially effective way of reducing the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic. But how effective is UV light at destroying viruses? What type of UV light should we use? How can UV light protect us, in conjunction with our N95 masks, and the environment we are in from potentially harmful substances?
To understand and answer these questions, we must first understand the role of aerosols and airborne transmission.
First of all, UV light fails at protecting us from larger, heavy droplets that are ejected via coughs or sneezes from one infected person to a healthy person. These viral droplets can stick to surfaces and contaminate them, and when we touch these surfaces, we can naturally spread the virus to ourselves.
UV light cannot protect you from being exposed to the viral particles that emerge from an infected person. However, it can help you sanitize the contaminated surfaces by eliminating the virus from them.
If you, let’s say, inhale a very concentrated cloud of tiny viral particles, you will likely find that a significant amount of them will end up in your respiratory system. It doesn’t matter how much UV light there is in that environment, these particles will not be stopped.
In that situation, face masks and social distancing are the way to go – reducing the chance of respiratory droplet inhalation.
That being said, we now have evidence that viral aerosols can linger in the air for longer, and this is where UV light comes in.
Obviously, health authorities have been stressing the risks that come with bringing a lot of people into a poorly ventilated environment. In crowded places such as a bar or a club, people speak loudly, they don’t wear masks, and there’s poor ventilation in that environment.
That’s why authorities have recommended the use of air filters to increase ventilation, as well as the installation of upper-room ultraviolet germicidal light in those poorly-ventilated environments where transmissions are at higher risk.
And even though you cannot have new air filtering and ventilation in every single building, an easier choice becomes using high-powered air purifiers and hanging/portable UV lights during the sanitization process of any environment.
A recent study paper authored by Spanish virology experts came to the conclusion that UV light is one of the most affordable, practical, and easily-deployable ways to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus – both to disinfect surfaces that are often touched and to purify interior air.
UV light presents us with an easy way to destroy viral particles.
90 years ago, all the way back in the mid 30s, William Wells was the first to demonstrate that UV light could make airborne microorganisms ineffective. Later, the started installing this technology in front of schools in Philadelphia so he can help reduce the spread of measles.
During the U.S. outbreak of drug-resistant tuberculosis, UV light gained more steam as it was placed in front of many clinics and homeless shelters to prevent the spread of the disease. UV light is still very commonly used in parts of the world such as Asia and South America where drug-resistant TB is a problem to this day.
That being said, we have little functioning evidence that shows us how effective UV light is in dealing with the novel coronavirus pandemic. Still, recommendations have come from many experts and authorities to install UV in restaurants, grocery stores, and other environments with typically high ceilings as this brings vertical air exchange and allows for the sterilization of the air in the room.
UV is often regarded as extremely safe and well-proven technology that remains largely misunderstood. Nobody really doubts the efficiency of germicidal UV in eliminating pathogens and small viral microorganisms, but misunderstandings behind the safety of UV lights to humans have brought research and wide adoption to a halt.
Several international guidelines have specifically warned against the use of UV light because of associated risks of skin cancer, but those risks have been found to be miniscule and not even worth mentioning. However, misconceptions like these have been persistent throughout the tech and healthcare community for decades, making it difficult for the technology to get more support and research.
Can UV help us reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus?
The short answer is, yes. But investments in UV lights are investments in infrastructure. This requires finding the right product, fixture, allowing air circulation, and making sure that UV does not contact humans directly.
This means that you have to carefully choose the places where you’re going to install UV because you simply can’t do it everywhere. Environments with high ceilings are perfect and rather a straightforward choice because UV can be mounted away from humans. And in order for UV to be effective and eliminate microorganisms, it has to directly hit the virus which is easily possible in high-ceiling rooms.
All of this, however, can lead to a new regulatory abyss, meaning that rolling out this technology for mass adoption will likely be slow and inconsistent. That being said, high-risk places such as meatpacking plants, nursing and healthcare facilities, and restaurants could be one of the best places we can test the efficiency and safety of this new (but old) technology.