Before you buy: Take a deeper look into the world of air ionizers. Explore what these “ionic air purifiers” do, their hidden dangers in producing ozone, and why you may not want them in your home.
Whether you are a healthy person, or someone who may have respiratory issues such as asthma or allergies, you may be considering purchasing an air purifier to reap the many benefits of better indoor air quality.
If you are embarking on a search to find the right air purifier for you and your family, you just might be feverishly scratching your head. With all the possible sources of pollution and all of their relative dangers, the world of air purifiers is filled with a lot of jargon, marketing fluff, and misinformation. One of our missions here at Molekule is to “clear the air” so you can make an educated decision on your quest to better air quality.
Today, we will dive into one of the more prominent air purifier technologies currently on the market: air ionizers. Like most other air purification methods, ionizers are usually stacked with other filters and cleaners that can have more of an impact on their effectiveness than ionizing.
Ionizer Air Purifiers: How Do They Work?
When you search online for an air ionizer, you may come across many terms in addition to ionizers, like ionic, bipolar ions, needle-point ion generator, plasma, and many other terms. All of these terms are used interchangeably by the market and refer to the same basic process of using electricity to charge air molecules. For the sake of consistency, we will refer to the general product group as air ionizers, because they all create ions out of air molecules. There are three basic techniques that ionizers utilize, and only one of them is good.
- Electrostatic precipitation on flat plates without a filter. These devices come by many names but share the feature of charging particles and collecting them on flat plates with the opposite charge inside the device. They typically do not have a filter made of fibers like other air cleaning devices, and also tend to lack a fan. The plates are supposed to simply be wiped free of collected pollutants periodically, which sounds convenient.
- Ion generators without filters. Also known by many names, these devices claim to charge particles then spray them out into the room. The idea is that the charged particles will settle out of the air more quickly as they stick to the walls and floor with static electricity. The reality is that they can be easily kicked back into the air by human traffic, and will also stick to the inside of your lungs if inhaled.
- Ion generators with filters. The big feature that makes an ionizing air purifier safe is to immediately collect any charged particles. A “good” ionizing air purifier is designed to use the charge to stick the particles to a filter, not the walls, floor, or your body.
The Infamous “Ionic Breeze”
When you think of an air ionizer, the first air cleaner that might crop up may be The Sharper Image Ionic Breeze (an electrostatic precipitator ionizer). The Sharper Image’s impressive infomercials were all over television back in the late 90’s, seemingly offering a futuristic and efficient approach to cleaning the air.
These advertisements did a great job, and sold the devices into 3.2 million households. But a deeper investigation by the consumer advocate magazine Consumer Reports found problems with the Ionic Breeze bad enough to eventually bankrupt The Sharper Image in 2008.
The downfall of the Ionic Breeze had its catalyst due to an investigative report published by Consumer Reports. In two separate reports, Consumer Reports tested fan-driven air purifiers against the Ionic Breeze and other similar devices. They found that these ionic air purifiers could only move a small fraction of the air that a device with a fan can – a natural conclusion, given that you can feel air blasting out of a purifier with a fan but the Ionic Breeze just sits there quietly.
What really brought upon the decline of the ionizing air cleaners was Consumer Report’s second finding that these devices were generating unacceptable levels of ozone, a byproduct created because of how they work.
Ozone, according to the EPA, can cause harmful health consequences such as chest pain, coughing, shortness of breath and throat irritation.
Ozone is a form of oxygen produced when regular oxygen is charged, so it stands to reason that generating ions is also generating ozone. Ozone is one of the EPA’s criteria air pollutants to be monitored and avoided, particularly by those who suffer from allergy or asthma as ozone can trigger symptoms.
Because of Consumer Report’s revelation, sales of the Ionic Breeze ceased. Sharper Image was bought and sold a few times until a relaunch a few years ago in 2019. The Ionic Breeze is no longer sold, but several models of “Ionic Comfort” air purifiers are available that sport several fans to move air properly. What’s more, they are listed on the CARB website as ozone-safe, like any air purifier should be.