This blogpost aims to discuss the potential side effects air purifiers can have on human health. Additionally, the causative agents will be elaborated. Finally, preventive measures against the side effects will be discussed.
Can air purifiers have any side effects on health
Yes, air purifiers can have side effects on human health. Air purifiers are devices that filter out particulate matter and certain gaseous substances from the ambient indoor air.
Nowadays it is a vital requirement for every household due to the rise in air pollution levels each year.
Why do we need an air purifier?
Over the previous decades, the rise in air pollution has been prevalent, especially in urban areas. Air pollution is caused by both natural processes as well as anthropogenic (i.e., human-based) activities, however, the latter is the main culprit.
Activities related to rapid urbanisation, such as traffic related air pollution, emissions from industries such as thermal power plants, brick kilns, factories, etc., and other such processes have significantly contributed towards the steady degradation of air quality.
An average individual spends more than 90% of their time within an enclosement, with more than 80% of this time in an indoor setting such as offices, residents, and so on.
There have been studies that have shown that in large cities, indoor air pollution poses a higher risk on human health than outdoor air pollution.
Indoor air pollution can originate from indoor sources, such as household items, furniture, combustion of fuels, smoking, and so on.
Indoor air can also get polluted when pollution from outdoors infiltrates through openings such as doors, windows, gaps, cracks, seeps, and so on.
Amongst these pollutants, the worst is particulate matter, or simply PM. PM refers to particles in the sub-micron range that are suspended in the air.
There are two forms of particulate matter: coarse particulate matter (PM10) and tiny particulate matter (PM2.5). PM2.5 is a prevalent problem among them.
There are many sources of PM in the ambient air. Some of the main sources include factories, power plants, refuse incinerators, fumes from automobiles, construction activities, fires and natural windblown dust.
Indoor sources include burning of fuels, smoking, and other hobbies, such as woodworking, painting, etc.
Numerous studies have shown that exposure to polluted air containing particulate matter have been shown to cause various issues, such as:
- premature death in people with heart or lung disease
- nonfatal heart attacks
- irregular heartbeat
- aggravated asthma
- decreased lung function
- increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing.
Given the variety of PM present, they have various sources. These particles can originate from a variety of sources, which can be indoors, or outdoor pollution that enters through doors, windows, seeps, cracks, and so on.
This is where air purifiers come in the picture. Air purifiers mainly work on particulate matter, and rid the indoor ambient air of the PM pollution in the room, thereby cleaning the indoor air and making it safe for breathing.
They filter out particulate matter less than 0.3 microns, and the HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters typically have an efficiency of more than 99%.
For people who suffer from allergies, asthma, or other illnesses, air purifiers can be a lifesaver. These ingenious gadgets function to remove dust, smoke, pollen, and other noxious pollutants from the air, which may cause discomfort and sickness.
Side effects of air purifiers
Although there are numerous benefits of air purifiers, there are certain disadvantages which could cause side effects on human health. These include:
- Generation of ozone gas
- Inefficiency towards VOCs and viruses
- Breeding ground for mold and bacteria
- Accumulation of particles by ionisers
We shall discuss these in more detail
Generation of ozone gas
Air purifiers use ionisers that generate ions at the rate of thousands per minute. They do so by using a mechanism called corona charging, in which oxygen molecules can also get broken down, which in turn react with each other to form ozone.
Ozone is a highly reactive gaseous molecule which is naturally present in the upper layers of the atmosphere, where it absorbs the sun’s damaging ultraviolet radiation.
When present in the lower levels of the atmosphere, however, it acts as a pollutant, and can have serious adverse effects on human health, which also includes afflictions related to the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
Ozone acts as an irritant, due to its pungent odor. It can cause wheezing, irritation in the nose and throat, runny nose, watery eyes, difficulty in breathing, and so on.
Additionally, ozone can also worsen the condition of people who are suffering from diseases such as asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis.
Inefficiency towards VOCs and viruses
VOCs refer to a variety of organic compounds that are emitted from certain materials in the form of a gas. These compounds are present in commonly stored household products, such as paints, solvents, cleaning products, cosmetics, and fuels.
All of these products release VOCs when in use, as well as when they are stored. Exposure to VOCs can cause short term health effects such as irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, headaches, and nausea.
Long term exposures can adversely affect the liver, kidneys, and the central nervous system.
In the current scenario, the covid pandemic has been a prevalent issue. Studies have shown how the virus can spread indoors from infected articles to healthy people. Hence, prevention is necessary.
However, this is where air purifiers fall short. They fail to get rid of VOCs, and cannot catch virus particles, since the typical size of a virus is less than the effective range for the air purifier’s functioning.
Breeding ground for molds and bacteria
For cases where the air purifier is installed in rooms with high relative humidity, one of the common substances to get trapped in the air filter would be mold and bacteria.
If the filter is left on at all times, the amount of water vapour that gets entrapped in the filter will also increase.
Not only will this reduce the efficiency of the filter, it will also serve as a breeding ground for mold and bacteria, which in turn would be propagated through the air purifier.
So, it is vital to install a dehumidifier along with the air purifier, and to regularly check the filter for the presence of mold or other bacteria.
Accumulation of particles by ionisers
Some air purifiers work as ionisers. They release charged particles called ions, which attract the oppositely charged pollutant species.
Once they interact, the particle becomes too heavy to stay suspended in the air, and eventually falls out on surfaces.
However, sometimes, this can also affect human health, as these ions can also get stuck to the skin, particularly in the face and neck region.
In turn, these ions can attract pollutants towards the user itself, and can cause deposition of pollutants on the skin of the user. This can cause adverse effects on the skin, depending on the nature of the pollutant species.
Certain toxic species, which are heavy metal pollutants like lead, can be attracted towards the skin, and can have serious implications on the health of the user.
Additionally, in case if the air contains Volatile Organic Compounds, or simply VOCs, the ozone generated from the device as a byproduct can react with the VOCs in order to give rise to secondary organic aerosols (SOAs).
These SOAs do not have any implications on human health. However, they reduce the efficiency of the air purifier necklaces, as they reduce the particle removal performance.
How to prevent side effects of air purifiers
As we’ve seen, it is vital to keep the negative effects caused by air purifiers in check, so that it can deliver the way it was meant to be.
Therefore, we should take certain steps in order to ensure that the air purifiers are performing adequately. This can be done in the following manner:
- Opt for air purifiers that have minimal ozone production
- Avoid running air purifiers in high humidity settings
- Clean the air purifying filters regularly
- Get the device serviced on a regular basis
Let us discuss these in more detail below.
Opt for air purifiers that have minimal ozone production
There are many commercially available air purifiers which have none to very minimal ozone production. Usually, buying an air purifier with a True HEPA filter would be your safest option.
Similarly, one should refrain from investing in an air ioniser purifier, since they generate a lot of ozone in their working. Furthermore, these purifiers aren’t as efficient as the HEPA filter air purifiers.
Avoid running air purifiers in high humidity settings
As discussed above, running an air purifier in high humidity settings would reduce the efficiency of air purifiers, as well as create conditions which make the growth of mold, bacteria, and spores favourable, within the air purifier unit itself.
Therefore, one should avoid running an air purifier in high humidity settings. However, it is vital to install a dehumidifier along with the air purifier.
This would help to reduce the humidity levels in the room/house, which in turn would make it easier for the air purifier to run optimally.
Furthermore, low humidity levels created by the dehumidifier would also help to hamper the growth of bacteria and mold within the rooms itself, thereby making the indoor air cleaner.
Get the device serviced on a regular basis
It is ideal to get your air purifier serviced on a regular basis by the technicians, as it is beneficial for the long run. This is also very helpful since any latent issues could also be identified and dealt with before it becomes a menace.
There are side effects for all types of air purifiers, as we’ve seen above. However, regular maintenance, reducing relative humidity of the indoor environment, and refraining from ionisers help to minimise and prevent the side effects of air purifiers.
How to tell if my air purifier is producing ozone?
Although manufacturers usually mention it along with the product, sometimes, due to technical issues, your air purifier might start generating ozone.
You can tell whether there is ozone by looking out for some of the most common symptoms such as a feeling of irritation in the eyes, nose and throat.
Some people may also experience respiratory or heart symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain, and wheezing.
Is there radiation from air purifiers?
Yes, air purifiers produce a safe & small amount of electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation. However, there is no data supporting the claims that they’re harmful. Therefore, one should not worry about side effects due to radiation.
Other FAQs about Air Purifiers and Filters that you may be interested in.
- Yoda Y, Tamura K, Adachi S, Otani N, Nakayama SF, Shima M. Effects of the Use of Air Purifier on Indoor Environment and Respiratory System among Healthy Adults. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(10):3687. Published 2020 May 23. doi:10.3390/ijerph17103687
- Breathe Better Air. HEPA Air Purifier Side Effects.
- Hunker. Understanding Air Exchangers.
- EnviroKlenz Air Purifiers. Ionic Air Purifiers: Are Ionizers Safe for Your Air?
- Phys.org. Study uncovers safety concerns with ionic air purifiers.
- How air purifiers can be harmful and aggravate health conditions?