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How Clean is the Air You’re Breathing Right Now?

by Rebekah Fuller, Editor for IQS

Every human being has the right to breathe clean air, and it is essential for government, manufacturers and trade associations to work together for the purest air possible. This objective is unquestionably a huge challenge, as our environment is filled with innumerable complexly volatile contaminants due to our progress in industry over the last few centuries. Federal and industry standards need to be either enacted or evaluated with support by definitive research on combating and controlling air pollutants and what levels are acceptable in the air we breathe.

Strides have been made in outdoor smog control since the Environmental Protection Agency was formed and the first Clean Air Act was passed under President Nixon, and then the Clean Air Act Amendments under the first President Bush. There is definitely room for improvement in reducing emissions, as many U.S. communities are still trying to catch up to air purity regulations. Air pollution control equipment exists to reduce emissions into the atmosphere, and air filters and filtration systems exist for indoor air quality. However, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s website, there are no national health standards for air filter performance because the Federal government has concluded that there is not yet enough data on the link between air filtration and actual health improvement.

But air filters are far from ineffective. Air compressor filter manufacturers and related trade associations, namely The National Air Filtration Association, are committed to providing the cleanest air possible inside industrial, commercial, healthcare, institutional and residential buildings, as air filtration is an essential part of a green building initiative. NAFA is a trade association that offers education and certification and sets field performance standards.

With pandemic concerns fresh in our minds and on our TV screens, we can see clearly how superior air filtration is vital. Filters come in many varieties, from screens to portable units, that use different types of filter media to protect against pollen, pet dander, molds, bacteria, dirt, dust, gas, odors, and infectious airborne agents. Filter media is generally fibrous material, commonly paper, foam and possibly fiberglass, cotton and polyester. The facemasks we’ve seen on the news during this recent swine flu outbreak are examples of filter media, though for high quantity absorption air filters have greater volumes and densities. Foam filters are excellent examples of very high dirt capacity filters because tiny interlocking cells trap and distribute the dirt particles throughout the entire volume of the foam. Extremely dusty environments, like motorsports, utilize foam filters.

Foam, cotton, or paper filters are often used in internal combustion engines and compressors to promote optimal performance and a longer life. Vacuum cleaners and humidifiers also use filters for this purpose. So besides the essential health concerns, air filters are integral to the functionality of the machines we rely on, like cars and air conditioners. The paper is definitely not the lined stuff we used to practice our penmanship on; it’s stiff enough to support itself, made of long fibrous pulp, resistant to moisture, and sometimes made to be rinsed for longer life. The paper is pleated in layers to catch particles on its surface area and in its volume.

Here is a list of other important air filters & filter media:

  • Carbon filter media is natural and effectively absorbs chemicals, gases and odors. Look for it as active carbon or activated carbon filters.
  • Electrostatic or electronic filters use electrical charges to attract allergens, dust and other irritants to metal collecting plates. Ion-type air cleaners are an example.
  • Expanded metal filters are made of layers of crimped and flat wire screen cloth designed for maximum dust holding capacity in HVAC applications. These are permanent air filters that are also used to protect ventilated electronic and electrical cabinetized equipment.
  • Grease filters are a type of metal filter, usually stainless steel, that prevent grease-laden air from entering exhaust ducts and from getting near heat sources, as in commercial ovens.
  • Mechanical filters are equipped with fans that force air through a mesh filter media. The fans, like many household appliances, produce a minimal ozone byproduct that should be within the acceptable level.
  • Hybrid filters contain both mechanical and electronic filter elements.
  • Gas phase filters or absorbers do not remove particles but odor, fumes and gasses.

Ozone generators, though endorsed by some manufacturers, are not necessarily recommended for indoor, domestic use, as they typically exceed acceptable levels for ozone. Manufacturers would argue that ozone is nature’s way of air purifying; it is one of the world’s most powerful sterilants, destroying bacteria, viruses and odors. However, it might be best left outside to do what nature intended, or maybe as a piece of air pollution control equipment.

For the most protection from air pollutant particles, High Efficiency Particulate Air Filters exist; you’ll recognize them as HEPA filters. First used to capture radioactive particles in nuclear reactor exhaust, they are now widely used in industrial, residential, office workplace, and healthcare environments because they are effective against a great variety and amount of contaminants. To receive the HEPA status, air filters must trap at least 99.97% of all particles 0.3 microns in diameter or larger.

When choosing the best air filtration product, you must clearly define your needs then do your homework on manufacturers to ensure you’re purchasing a quality air filter. With the increased concerns of allergies and asthma (the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America calls asthma a “growing epidemic” in the U.S. over the last 20 years), combined with infectious airborne viruses like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), avian flu, and most recently swine flu, it is necessary to set high standards for air filtration.

You should always get proof from the manufacturer that their product is within the acceptable level of ozone byproduct. Most air filter manufacturers have voluntarily adopted the acceptable level for ozone byproduct that’s set for other household devices in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). Plus, though the FDA has no health-related standards for air filters, it does rate some portable air filtration systems as Class II medical devices; for the best health protection look for two things: the Underwriters Laboratory (UL) seal and the FDA’s Class II approval.

There are plenty of groups, federal and otherwise, that incorporate air purification into their mission, and plenty of manufacturers offering air filters to serve a myriad of purposes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the United States Department of Health and Human Services can and have worked together for prevention and preparedness plans that include protection from hazardous air contaminants and airborne threats of many kinds, and I expect higher standards in the future.