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Pennsylvania Officials Consider New Tech to Make Schools Safe

As science has evolved on COVID-19 and best practices to mitigate the spread, some schools have decided to pursue an air purification strategy that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers emerging tech.

(TNS) — It’s not often school board directors need a science lesson before deciding to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This year, as the science has evolved on COVID-19 and best practices to mitigate the spread, several in the Lehigh Valley have decided to pursue an air purification strategy that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still considers an “emerging technology,” though its basic principals are as old as the Earth’s atmosphere.

In normal times, using a process called bipolar ionization to clean the air would seem a luxury for schools. These days, it’s looking to directors like one more thing they can do, often with money available from state-distributed coronavirus relief grants, to try to make schools safer.

So at least four Lehigh Valley school districts have or are getting ready to install these unimpressive blue boxes in their HVAC systems.

“If it keeps one kid from getting sick, so be it,” Allentown’s Operations Director  Tom Smith  said.

The needlepoint bipolar ionization devices send positive and negative ions through the air ducts that act like magnets, merging with air particles to make clumps that are easier for filters to catch. When viruses are present, the charged ions pull hydrogen away from their coats — in the case of the coronavirus, the spikey outer shell are proteins that need hydrogen to survive. Thus, the ions inactivate the virus.

“Where we see naturally occurring ions in the world around us are the places that people go on vacation to get cleaner air,”  John Gunning , senior mechanical engineer with McClure Co., explained to the Northwestern Lehigh School Board in December. Think higher-elevation places like mountains and waterfalls.

Bipolar ionization units are just one of several strategies Gunning’s team might present to school boards when asked for possible air-purifying solutions. Since the second round of federal coronavirus relief funding is anticipated to be much larger than the first, his company has in the last few months fielded more requests.

Though it’s yet to be vetted by independent experts or regulatory agencies, bipolar ionization tends to rise to the top of the list, Gunning said, since it’s flexible with existing HVAC systems and has a long life expectancy — about 10 years.

This school year, Kutztown Area School District was the first locally to outfit all its buildings at a cost of $250,000, before the start of the fall semester. Northwestern Lehigh installed units in early January for $350,000. Allentown School District bought nearly $472,000 worth of devices that are now being installed, and Northern Lehigh school board voted last week to procure them for about $250,000.

For the most part, the districts are funding them with federal coronavirus relief money, though Northwestern Lehigh used part of the $475,000 it had leftover from a high school construction fund.

“This seems like a godsend at this point in time with what we’re facing,” Northwestern Lehigh School Board President  Willard Dellicker  said at the December meeting, after voting yes.

This kind of purchase would have been out of the question for an underfunded district like Allentown had there not been relief money available, Smith said.

“Unfortunately, these are luxury items. They shouldn’t be, but they are,” he said. “The grant has given us the ability to level the playing field.”

Still, the districts all faced a common challenge: Among the sea of products emerging during the pandemic that claim to sanitize and purify, what can be trusted?

Even the efficacy of bipolar ionization is still under review with a newly formed epidemic task force at the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers — the industry experts who set standards for HVAC, among other systems.

“Convincing scientifically rigorous, peer-reviewed studies do not currently exist on this emerging technology; manufacturer data should be carefully considered,” the organization states on its website.

The CDC, too, considers it an emerging technology because, though the process is old, its application to HVAC systems is new. In the last 20 years or so, bipolar ionization has mainly been marketed toward odor-elimination, like in locker rooms or cosmetology labs.

“As with all emerging technologies, consumers are encouraged to exercise caution and to do their homework,” the CDC wrote in response to an ASHRAE inquiry.

Third-party test data about bipolar ionization’s impact on the coronavirus arrived in May, which made the option more mainstream for places like schools, Gunning said.

The experiment, conducted by an Innovative Bioanalysis lab on a device made by manufacturer Global Plasma Solutions, found that after 30 minutes of being exposed to needlepoint bipolar ionization, 99.4% of the viral particles became inactive.

McClure conducted its own tests on the air quality in Kutztown’s buildings a month after installation of the Global Plasma Solutions product. It couldn’t test for viral content in the air, but the tests showed improved air quality: far more ions and far fewer clumpy air particles.

“Nobody guaranteed us that bipolar ionization was going to solve this issue, and certainly it hasn’t,” Kutztown Superintendent  Christian Temchatin  said. “But it was the most effective solution that our engineers could recommend to help improve air quality for our students.”

The driving force, he said, was a desire to bring students back for in-person learning full time, which Kutztown did in August for kindergarten through eighth grade students (students could still opt for virtual learning).

That lack of guarantee is a main reason  Stephen Angstadt , senior project manager at Barry Isett and Associates, hasn’t specifically recommended these or other air purifiers to his clients. Plus, he said, the odds of transmitting the virus out one’s mouth, into the ceiling air ducts, out a supply grill and to another person are very unlikely, compared with breathing in the virus from a person sitting nearby.

“For this reason,” an article in ASHRAE Journal on guidance for building operations during COVID-19 states, “basic principles of social distancing (1 to 2 m or 3 to 6.5 ft), surface cleaning and disinfection, handwashing and other strategies of good hygiene are far more important than anything related to the HVAC system.”

Angstadt said clients have also come to him asking about ultraviolet light, a proven technology used in hospitals and, lately, nursing homes. These, however, have to be placed strategically where people aren’t exposed to the radiation for too long. Another strategy touted over the years, the use of ozone, has gone by the wayside for its potentially harmful respiratory side effects.

Earlier versions of bipolar ionization devices might have emitted some ozone, but, “many of the earlier potential safety concerns are reportedly now resolved,” the CDC says.

Gary Debes , president of the Lehigh Valley chapter of ASHRAE, called bipolar ionization a “good first step,” though the national organization does not yet have a firm position or guidance.

“This is a very new issue that is extremely complex, so there will most likely be updated recommendations from ASHRAE as this virus is studied further,” he said.

In the meantime, school leaders are moving ahead.

“At the core, it’s just doing all we can to mitigate the negative effects of the virus,” Northern Lehigh Superintendent  Matthew Link  said.

(c)2021 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.