Study clears the air on purifiers

 
 If you're using an ionizing air purifier in your home, turn it off and read on.

The machine might be causing more harm than good.

Recently, Consumer Reports magazine released its latest study of indoor air cleaners, specifically the popular ionizing type. Five of the models received a Not Recommended rating for both failing to adequately clean the air and, more important, generating "potentially harmful" levels of ozone.

The Not Recommended models are:

Brookstone Pure-Ion V2

Sharper Image Professional Series Ionic Breeze Quadra S1737 SNX

Ionic Pro CL-369

IonizAir P4620

Surround Air XJ-2000

The article, which appears in the May issue of Consumer Reports, is on newsstands now and also available for free through April at www.consumerreports.org.

The report also sheds light on the potentially misleading stamps of approval included in advertising for some of these products.

Ground-level ozone is a federally regulated pollutant, and long-term overexposure can cause permanent lung damage, even premature death, research indicates. Even short-term exposure can cause wheezing, coughing, chest pain and shortness of breath, according to the American Lung Association. This is especially true for high-risk groups such as individuals with respiratory diseases, senior citizens and children.

The Environmental Protection Agency considers eight hours of outdoor exposure at levels of 80 parts per billion an acceptable limit. The World Health Organization endorses a stricter limit of 60 ppb over eight hours, notes the Consumer Reports article.

A voluntary industry standard for indoor air purifiers recommends emissions of no more than 50 ppb.

CR replicated the Underwriters Laboratory (UL) sealed-room test on the above-named models. When readings were taken within two inches of the ionizers, all of them exceeded the 50 ppb standard. When CR tested the machines in a well-ventilated room, the IonizAir model emitted 168 ppb and the Surround Air a whopping 319 ppb two inches from the machines.

Two years ago, this column reported on an EPA review of research into ozone generators used as indoor air purifiers. The review concluded that the machines were ineffective at cleaning the air and potentially hazardous. Those models produce ozone on purpose, whereas ionizers do so as a byproduct of their electrostatic-precipitator technology.

(A few months later, in October 2003, CR published a report giving Sharper Image's popular Ionic Breeze model a poor rating for inadequately removing dust and smoke from the air. A resulting Sharper Image lawsuit against Consumer's Union, the nonprofit organization that publishes Consumer Reports, was dismissed by a federal judge last year.)

The current CR article notes that most people, of course, won't use the air purifiers a few inches from their faces and that ozone concentrations decline rapidly the farther one is from the machine.

On the other hand, marketing materials for these air cleaners often include instructions or images "that could lead you to use them close by," says Jeff Asher, CR's vice president and technical director. The picture on the IonizAir's box shows it on a bedside table, arm's length from a sleeping woman's face. A nationally televised commercial for Surround Air shows the machine within a foot or two of its users.

Representatives from Surround Air and Brookstone told USA Today that independent tests show their air cleaners to be effective.

Surround Air president Casey Fisher said that "the ozone level produced by the XJ-2000 is well beneath safety standards at as close as 1 foot away, and even less," according to the newspaper.

In CR's ventilated-room test, the Surround Air's ozone reading fell to 4 ppb at three feet away. The Brookstone's reading was 2 ppb.

Ironically, people with asthma and respiratory allergies - those who are most sensitive to ozone - make up 80 percent of the buyers of air cleaners. And ionizers now account for 25 percent of the approximately $410 million that consumers spend on air purifiers, Asher noted during a recent news conference.

In addition to the five models mentioned above, CR also tested two machines that it does recommend: the Friedrich C-90A, an ionizing-type model, and the Whirlpool 45030, an HEPA-filter air cleaner. The magazine will publish a more comprehensive air-cleaner report later this year.

Regulatory oversight of these air cleaners currently falls to no one. Because air cleaners are not medical devices, the Food and Drug Administration is not responsible. Because they work indoors, the EPA is not responsible. The magazine notes that the Consumer Product Safety Commission is looking into the issue and expects to release a report by the end of 2005.