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Air purifiers in confined spaces could worsen Covid-19 spread, researchers warn

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The use of air purifiers in confined spaces such as lifts could increase saliva droplet circulation which actually worsens the spread of Covid-19, researchers have said.

A team from the University of Nicosia in Cyprus said that while air purifiers are expected to help curtail the spread of the virus, they may actually increase it.

Air quality in small spaces can quickly degrade without ventilation. However, adding ventilation will increase the rate at which air, possibly laden with viruses, can circulate in the small space.

Elevator manufacturers have added air purifiers to take care of this problem, but the systems have not been designed to account for their effect on overall air circulation.

Air purifiers use ultraviolet radiation to kill viruses and other microbes, but they also circulate air, sucking it in and exhausting cleaned air. This adds to overall circulation, an aspect the team believes has not been considered in previous research.

Previous studies indicate that droplets of saliva can travel 5.5 metres in five seconds when an unmasked person coughs.

Investigators carried out calculations for a 3D space equivalent to an elevator capable of holding five people. A mild cough was simulated at one position in the space, and air inlets and outlets were added in various locations to study their influence on circulation. An air purifier was also included in the simulation.

“We quantified the effect of air circulation on airborne virus transmission and showed that installing an air purifier inside an elevator alters the air circulation significantly but does not eliminate airborne transmission,” said author Dimitris Drikakis.

The investigators found the risk of airborne virus transmission is lowest for low ventilation rates.

“This is due to reduced flow mixing inside the elevator,” said author Talib Dbouk. “Regulatory authorities should thus define the minimum ventilation required depending on the type of building.”

The study looked at the role of an air purifier, considering only the air intake and exhaust associated with the purifier, but not the mechanism inside the purifier that kills the virus. Even with an air purifier in place, airborne virus transmission is still significant.

“Our results show that installing an air purifier may increase the droplet spread,” Drikakis said. “The air intake integrated inside the purifier equipment induces flow circulation that can add to the transport of contaminated saliva droplets in the cabin.”

The observed effect increases with the number of infected persons in the elevator. Restricting the number of people allowed in an elevator would minimise the spread of the virus as would better design of air purifier and ventilation systems.

A new carbon-based air filter was developed last year that can capture and destroy animal coronaviruses which are close relatives of the SARS-CoV-2 virus strain that causes Covid-19.

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