Aerosol experts reveal unsettling truths about indoor air quality

A recent Popular Science piece exposed some startling information about airborne transmission of diseases, covering everything from toilet plumes to the 2003 outbreak of SARS. For example, the article notes that 100 bacteria, fungi and viruses can be spread through the air.

While we’ve all been encouraged to wash our hands and clean surfaces to prevent the spread of germs, creating safe and healthy air in shared spaces is often overlooked – if not directly neglected.

Popular Science uncovered an interesting history of this denial. For decades, scientists were extremely interested in indoor air quality (IAQ) and airborne germs. Then antibiotics became the norm, and IAQ research fell out of fashion.

However, with growing concerns about antibiotic-resistant strains of disease, and longtime struggles with common seasonal illnesses such as the flu, a network of devoted scientists is trying to remind the world that air quality is not something to be taken for granted.

Experts such as Steven Welty, Linsey Marr, William G. Lindsley, Rachel Jones and David Johnson are on the front lines of this research. Their studies highlight the importance of taking proactive measures to create healthy indoor air quality.

Some key facts from their research:

  • Numerous illnesses, including influenza, chicken pox and measles, can all be spread through the air.
  • Germs can be expelled into the air after multiple (as many as two dozen) toilet flushes, making bathrooms particular problem areas.
  • Small respiratory droplets greatly outnumber larger, visible droplets and can easily be caught in the air current and travel through ventilation systems.
  • Some people have been identified as super-emitters by experts, and release significantly more infectious flu particles when they cough or sneeze. One expert, Werner Bischoff, estimates this group is responsible for 80 percent of flu infections.

Why you haven’t heard much about IAQ

Since we can’t see the air that we’re constantly breathing, it’s hard to visualize the thousands of particles – including dust, germs, allergens and volatile organic compounds – floating in the environment around us.

When a person sneezes, we steer clear of the visible droplets that follow, but many of the contagious germs are actually so small that they can remain in the air indefinitely. We tend not to worry about those as much.

Popular Science points out that handwashing is still the primary recommendation for preventing the spread of germs, even though there’s limited evidence of its effectiveness.

How IAQ effects flu season

Multiple studies have found that influenza can remain in the air indefinitely, then be inhaled by others deep into the lungs. Flu season usually takes place when the weather is colder – not necessarily because of the temperature, but because people spend more time indoors with others. In offices, schools and other shared spaces, this results in widespread illness.

One proven way to limit the airborne transmission of influenza in shared spaces is to use an air purification system. The AeraMax Professional, a commercial air purifier, removes 99.9 percent of influenza from the air in only 35 minutes, helping to mitigate flu season and provide better air quality to any indoor environment.