COVID: Air purifiers and UV light to keep school pupils safe

Reading Time: 5 minutes
  • UK trialling air purifiers and UV light in primary schools
  • How is UV light and LEDs effective against COVID-19?
  • Vegas using UV light for coronavirus disinfection
  • How will UV light be used to disinfect schools?

The UK government will be trialling the effectiveness of using air purifiers and ultraviolet lights (UV) to fight the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

According to official sources, the trial will cost an estimated £1.75M and is being tested in thirty primary schools across Bradford, Yorkshire. However, suppose the devices are found to work. In that case, the government could scale up the operation to run nationwide, with researchers noting that it would prove a “massive prize” in the battle against the coronavirus.

Kids at school

Although some teachers have dismissed the trial as “pointless dithering”, scientists note that it could successfully reduce cold and flu, hayfever and asthma absences by improving air quality in classrooms.

Of the thirty schools, ten will be fitted with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. In addition, ten will receive UV air purifiers, and the remaining ten will be a control group with no purifying devices.

The government-funded trial is also being backed by the Centre for Applied Education Research (CAER), which is committed to using research to improve, educate and empower schools.

CAER is a partnership between the Bradford Institute of Health Research, Bradford Local Authority, Educational Endowment Foundation, Leeds, Bradford and York universities, and the Department for Education. They have worked closely with schools since the onset of the pandemic.

Project leader and University of Leeds Professor Mark Mon-Williams said the study would also look at the practical issues of installing units in schools.

Professor Mon-Williams said: “Air purification and UV disinfection could be a game-changer for ensuring schools remain open while the COVID-19 continues to pose a threat to public health.

“However, a nationwide rollout depends on the evidence gathered in the trial as equipping schools with this technology requires a significant investment.

“We have first to find out whether these devices make a positive difference, and then we still need to know whether it is the best possible solution at this time given that many schools are struggling financially.”

The trial commenced in early September, and the first set of results are expected to be available by year-end. If successful, CAER could roll the devices out nationwide next year.

Minister of State for School Standards, Nick Gibb, said that “ventilation has been a key part of government guidance provided to schools to minimise the risk of transmission between teachers, pupils and other staff members.”

Mr Gibb went on to say: “We’ve been looking into the possible benefits of air purifiers and CO2 monitors to determine whether these devices would be effective in helping schools monitor air quality in classrooms.”

A government spokesperson added: “The government pilot is designed to assess the most effective ways to disinfect the air in schools to keep children and staff safe.”

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How is UV light and LED effective against COVID-19?

UV light and LEDs are commonly used for sterilisation, and according to researchers, they can render the coronavirus inactive at specific wavelengths.

Ultraviolet light is a direct antimicrobial approach and has proven to be effective in eliminating different strains of COVID-19. However, as they usually emit at approximately 254 nanometers, these wavelengths can be hazardous to human skin.

Germicidal LEDs prevent the growth of bacteria, fungus and viruses. These types of lights are found in hospitals and other public spaces as opposed to UV sources; they are environmentally friendly as they consume less energy and do not contain harmful mercury.

UV-LEDs are fast becoming an alternative for UV sources instead of conventional UV light; they do not damage the ozone or pose a threat to human health.

During the pandemic, a team of researchers developed far-ultraviolet LEDs (UV-C LEDs) with a wavelength of 222 nanometers to inactivate the virus while protecting human skin. The UV-C LEDs are suitable for disinfecting medical apparatus, personal protective equipment (PPE) and personal products such as phones, pens and laptops.

They based their design on aluminium gallium nitride, a branch of materials called III-nitrides that are efficient, inexpensive, and environmentally friendly.

Although aluminium gallium nitride is already being used to combat COVID-19, the new design has further increased its efficacy.

Vegas schools enlist UV light to combat COVID in classrooms

The Clark County School District – the fifth-largest school system in Las Vegas – has enlisted new UV light technology for COVID-19 disinfection in schools to reduce the risk of transmission.

During a demonstration, Chief Executive and Co-Founder of Utah biosafety startup R-Zero Grant Morgan told reporters that no chemicals are involved in the sterilisation process. The system also delivers hospital-grade disinfection for indoor facilities.

Mr Morgan went on to say that the system uses a blue light-emitting diode tower, capable of disinfecting 1,000 sq feet of indoor space in seven minutes, eliminating more than 99.99% of surface and airborne viruses.

Disinfection will occur while the indoor setting is unoccupied, but there will be no lingering effects post-treatment, implying that it is safe for staff and children.

According to the Review Journal, the system is being rolled out across all of Clark County School District’s 372 campuses and has cost $7.4M in federal COVID relief funds, with each unit totalling $20K.

Although the units won’t be used daily in every classroom, they will be utilised when outbreaks arise and to enhance regular cleaning, said Jeff Wagner, Clark County schools facilities chief. However, they are expected to be used daily, if not multiple times a day, in washrooms and school health offices.

How will the UV light system work?

The unit emits UV-C light with wavelengths between 200 and 280 nanometers into unoccupied indoor spaces with the door closed. 

Clark County School District officials said that while disinfection takes place, staff will place a bilingual placard on the outside of the door warning against entering the room.

Although the system is not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), UV-C light is a known disinfectant for surface and airborne pathogens. It has been historically used to “zap” bacteria and fungus.

Recent studies have shown that it is effective against the coronavirus. The introduction of its use in schools is part of a broader “mitigation strategy”, said Jeff Wagner, Clark County schools facilities chief.

While there is no surefire way of making a building 100% safe, Mr Wagner hopes that this technology will be a gamechanger in the fight against the coronavirus.

Chief Executive and Co-Founder of Utah biosafety startup R-Zero Grant Morgan said that all personnel would undergo virtual and in-person training on the system due to the risks associated with UV-C lamps. The units have also been fitted with safety mechanisms, including a shut-off feature should someone enter the room while the disinfection process is underway.

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