Former top coronavirus adviser to the White House under President Donald Trump, Dr. Deborah Birx, has joined an air purification company that has built its business in part on technologies that are banned in California for health reasons.
The company is one of many companies that will receive a portion of the $ 193 billion federal grant for schools.
Birx is now the chief medical and scientific advisor to ActivePure Technology, a company that has had 50 million customers since it started as an Electrolux vacuum company in 1924 and has annual sales of nearly $ 500 million. The marketing includes photos of space, a nod to the ’90s breakthrough with technology to remove a gas from NASA spacecraft. The company’s own studies show that it took advantage of something less impressive in its efforts to create “the healthiest indoor climate in North America”: the disinfectant power of ozone – a molecule classified as dangerous and with the onset and worsening of asthma connected is.
In an interview with KHN, CEO Joe Urso admitted that its ozone-emitting air purifiers account for 5% of sales, despite marketing repeatedly claiming “no chemicals or ozone”.
Conflicts between an air purification company’s scientific and marketing claims are nothing new to academic air quality professionals. They warn that the industry, which sells to dental offices, corporations, and gyms, is focused on school officials who are desperate to convince parents and teachers that their buildings are safe. Children can be especially vulnerable to the chemical exposure that some of these devices may cause, experts say.
“The concerns you have raised are legitimate,” Birx said when it comes to other companies’ products, noting that as a grandmother, she shares health concerns. However, she added that she had full confidence in ActivePure after reviewing records of the Food and Drug Administration’s release of a company device.
Schools will receive approximately $ 180 billion in federal funding to spend on personal protective equipment, physical barriers, air purification systems, and other infrastructure improvements. Previously, they could have used $ 13 billion in CARES Act funds. Democrats are pushing for another $ 100 billion that could also be used for school improvements, including air purifiers.
Placing unregulated equipment in classrooms is “a huge uncontrolled experiment,” said Jeffrey Siegel, professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto and a member of the building technology research group.
Researchers and the Environmental Protection Agency say the broader industry is promoting products that alter molecules in the air to kill germs without realizing that the reactions can produce other harmful substances, such as the carcinogenic formaldehyde.
Marwa Zaatari, an indoor air quality advisor and a member of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers’ epidemic task force, said she counted more than 125 schools or districts that have already purchased models of air filters that the EPA has linked to ” “potentially harmful by-products” such as ozone or formaldehyde. She estimated that at least $ 60 million was spent.
Instead, air quality experts say the best solutions are based on the basics: adding more outside air, buying portable HEPA filters, and installing MERV 13 filters in heating systems. But school authorities are often drawn to aggressive claims of 99.9% efficiency – based on testing a filter in a small closet rather than a classroom. “Every dollar you spend on this device is a dollar subtracted from the correct solution,” Zaatari said.
ActivePure Technology’s Urso said “Other companies that I believe are making false claims” have been looking at the industry. But he said his company’s technology had steadily improved and was now emitting “gaseous hydrogen peroxide” and other molecules that seek and destroy viruses, mold and bacteria. He described the technology as active – in contrast to the more passive technology of air filters. The “safest, fastest and most powerful surface and air cleaning technology available” is made available on a company website.
Urso added, “I have great technology that is truthful and does what I say.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention specifically warn of technologies that release hydrogen peroxide and are “heavily marketed”. The agency says the technology is “nascent” and “consumers are urged to exercise caution”.
During a Zoom interview, Birx briefed ActivePure Medical President Daniel Marsh and Urso about the science. Instead, she focused on the need for products that increase people’s confidence in maskless interiors.
“Imagine reducing the number of sick days your workforce takes because your air is less contaminated,” said Birx. “There are uses of this technology that will overcome the current pandemic.”
Birx was a controversial figure on Trump’s team. She has been criticized for standing still when Trump suggested that people could use disinfectants to get rid of the virus. She recently spoke about her discomfort with such statements – while also endorsing ActivePure technology.
Birx said she was attracted to ActivePure because of her commitment to “hard science” to get the Medical Guardian cleared by the FDA. The process required the company to demonstrate that the device was essentially the same as an existing device. Records the company submitted to the FDA describe the Medical Guardian as an “ion generator” and “photocatalytic oxidizer” that demonstrated “high effectiveness against … a wide range of viable bioaerosols.”
Birx said she uses a hospital HEPA filter in her home, but noted that it was only because she was unfamiliar with ActivePure technology when she purchased it.
If ActivePure technology, formerly known as Aerus, tells its story, it is a seamless advance. However, the purchase of air filter company EcoQuest in 2009 left the company with two problematic technologies: one that purposely created ozone to purify the air, and one that, incidentally, did so, studies by the subsidiary show.
However, the ActivePure companies and subsidiaries made the most of it and marketed the technology’s cleaners based on a Kansas State University study that looked at how well the devices disinfect the surface of meat compared to chlorine, which is often used by meat packers used to kill bacteria.
Meanwhile, California lawmakers banned the use of air purifiers by consumers that emit more than 50 parts per billion ozone. A survey that found that a small percentage of citizens who used such devices at home had children classified as particularly ozone sensitive gave them impetus to regulate the industry. According to California law, ozone can “permanently damage lung tissue and reduce a person’s ability to breathe.”
The CDC also reviewed ActivePure technology in 2009. At the time, Birx, who served under three presidents in the agency, was leading the global fight against AIDS.
Agency scientists investigated the potential of air purifiers to remove formaldehyde from Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers deployed after Hurricane Katrina. They knew that the devices could potentially trade one hazard – ozone, which is formed by some air purifiers – for the hazard they were trying to eliminate. They tested and found that a device from ActiveTek – a subsidiary of Aerus – using ActivePure technology emitted 116 parts per billion of ozone. Scientists thought this was too high to clean the pendants.
Birx said the older ozone-emitting devices are first generation devices. The newer ActivePure devices are from the third generation and one is now validated by FDA approval. This is not the same as FDA approval, which requires proof that the device is safe and effective.
According to Urso, the company’s devices that emit ozone are primarily intended for commercial use. Although the marketing for ActivePure says “no chemicals or ozone,” Urso admitted it still sells a Pure & Clean Plus device that emits ozone and cannot be sold in California.
“It’s very confusing,” said Urso, “and it’s confusing because we agree with it too.” [the] ActivePure ”logo. The company didn’t answer questions about five other devices for sale on its website. These state that they cannot be sold in California.
While current ActivePure marketing also says the technology does not produce any by-products, Urso reflects the results of laboratory studies, not studies from the environment in which they may be used. That includes hundreds of schools who have trusted their technology, the company website says. Experts say that chemicals that could react with air filter technology include auto exhaust, aerosol cleaners, paint, and glue.
The company also markets to preschools. Brent Stephens, an indoor air quality expert who heads the Construction, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering Department at the Illinois Institute of Technology, was asked about the Aerus Hydroxyl Blaster by the director of his own children’s preschool.
Aerus had sent the director a sample to test in their home. Stephens advised against buying one for preschool, however, saying that while claims of similar machines may sound good, studies to back them up often haven’t.
“It’s wild out there,” he wrote in an email. “Consumers need to know how these things work and whether they will face unforeseen consequences such as the generation of by-products from their use.”
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