‘What it hits, it will get’: UV light may be the new weapon in fight against pandemic

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A COVID-19 vaccine may be months away, but there’s a new weapon in the fight against the pandemic.

And it’s been around for generations: ultraviolet light, or UV for short.

"It would work on surfaces, it would work on anything in the air," says University of Minnesota Professor Chris Hogan, who specializes in aerosol science and particle technology. "UV doesn’t discriminate. What it hits, it will get."

UV lights suddenly appear to be popping up everywhere.

JetBlue is running tests on a UV device designed to disinfect airplanes.

M Health Fairview is using a UV tower to decontaminate surgical masks.

"The coronavirus has changed I think, how we all look at health, how we all look at safety," says JetBlue president JoAnna Geraghty.

HVAC companies are even installing UV lighting in home ventilation systems.

You might even find a UV setting on your vacuum cleaner.

But it turns out, using ultraviolet light for medical purposes is a century-old technology.

Hogan says the 1903 Nobel Prize for medicine was awarded for research into the use of UV light to treat tuberculosis of the skin.

He says UV lights were installed in schools in the 1930s, during measles outbreaks.

Now, the focus is on killing germs and viruses like COVID-19.

Hogan says ultraviolet light changes the genetic makeup of the virus, keeping it from replicating.

"It’s almost like hitting it with a laser if you will, that kills it," he explains. "In fact, the type of UV light they’re using is actually called UVGI– ultraviolet germicidal irradiation, because it’s so well known to be germicidal, to kill bacteria and viruses."

JetBlue is now testing a device called the ‘UV Cabin System.’

Developed by Honeywell Aerospace, it’s like a snack car with extended arms, that rolls up and down a plane’s aisle, shining light over the seats.

Other lights zero in on the overhead compartment.

Honeywell says the system is capable of disinfecting a plane in less than ten minutes.

"This is technology that’s been used in hospitals for many years," says Mike Madsen, Honeywell’s President and CEO. "(It’s) demonstrated to be 90% effective on all kinds of pathogens, so not just viruses, bacteria, etc."

M Health Fairview has been using a mobile UV tower system to decontaminate N95 masks since mid-April.

Groups of masks are hung on a rack system designed for maximum UV exposure. The process can decontaminate 62 masks every 45 minutes, the hospital says.

That’s about 700 masks per eight-hour shift.

M Health Fairview released a statement which says in part:

"3M verified…that the fit and filtration of its N95 respirators did not show degradation after going through our ultraviolet germicidal irradiation, or UVGI system. The process maintains the integrity and performance of the masks for up to six decontamination cycles."

"You’ve probably heard the concern with hospitals running out of these N95 masks. One way of recycling things like that is to put them into a UV oven," Hogan says. "It’s great for killing all the viruses that might be on those masks, but it starts to damage the elastic band of the mask over time. So, got to make a tradeoff there."

Then, there’s the air in your home.

Mike Nesdahl, the president of Air Mechanical in Ham Lake, showed 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS how a UV bulb assembly, installed in a home ventilation system, shines a virus-killing light inside.

"When you put them in these units, what it does, it also kills anything that can grow in a dark, moist environment," he says. "This simulates the sun, so it’s giving it that spectrum of light that kills those bacteria and viruses."

Nesdahl’s warehouse is packed with stacks of boxes of air-filtering gear.

He says he’s sold hundreds of UV bulb assemblies during the last few months.

Before the pandemic, he says he’d typically sell between five and ten units a month.

"People are in their homes a lot more now," Nesdahl says. "Being in their homes, they want to make sure the air quality is as good as they can possibly have it."

"If you had anything infectious in the air, it would go through this duct, and exposed to UV light, and hopefully nothing infectious comes out," Hogan adds. "I can tell you it works extremely well. We’ve tested a lot of different technologies, and I can say 99.9% or more are inactivated."

UV lighting is nothing to fool with.

A sign on one HVAC system warns users it can cause blindness.

Onboard an aircraft, UV Cabin System operators have to stand behind a special light shield, for safety.

No one else is allowed on the plane during the cleaning process.

JetBlue says the process is still in the testing phase.

"We’ve got a team from Honeywell here, and we’ve got a JetBlue team," Geraghty says. "We’ll be looking at the effectiveness of the application, whether or not in samples, whether or not the coronavirus has been killed."

Both Hogan and Nesdahl believe that UV lighting will make a difference during the pandemic.

"The point with UV is it has a very long history, some of which is forgotten," Hogan adds. "We don’t worry about measles because we have vaccines. So UV was kind of our pre-vaccine solution to a lot of those things."

You may have seen hand-held UV sanitizers sold online. Some claim they can do the job in seconds. But experts say it takes UV light time to do its work.

In a hospital, 45 minutes. On an airplane, about ten minutes.

JetBlue says if it goes ahead with the UV Cabin System, that won’t take the place of masking up and safe-distance seating.

Nesdahl says more and more of his customers are motivated to do something to keep themselves, and their families safe from the coronavirus.

"The reality is, it’s here and you can hate it, you can like it, it doesn’t matter," he declares. "It’s real, and you’ve got to deal with it."