For $1 per person, UV light can help protect world from virus, scientists claim

Offices, schools and hospitals everywhere should be installing ultraviolet lights that clean air and disinfect rooms when empty, says Israeli-Spanish-British research team

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

3D render of a room with ultraviolet light (iStock)
3D render of a room with ultraviolet light (iStock)

Ultraviolet lights should be used to make offices and schools self-disinfecting, and the equipment could be bought for just a dollar per worker or student, an international research team has claimed.

Haifa-based quantum physicist Ido Kaminer, working with colleagues in Europe, assessed the effectiveness of ultraviolet lights, which are being seized upon as a disinfection method in some countries, and found them to be highly effective.

In view of the pandemic, lights are well-suited for “rapid, widespread, and economically viable deployment,” they wrote, calling for a massive push by governments and health authorities around the world to make them commonplace.

“The potential of ultraviolet lights isn’t new, but it isn’t being explored enough in the pandemic, and they are a great option to help get economies operating again while making offices and schools safe, and also helping to make hospitals cleaner,” Kaminer told The Times of Israel. “This is why we wrote our paper.”

Image illustrating the use of UV for disinfection by Garcia de Abajo, a colleague of Ido Kaminer working on ultraviolet research (courtesy of Garcia de Abajo)

He said: “Our team has looked at a lot of solutions that are being proposed for reopening economies while preventing second waves, like chemical cleaning methods and anti-microbial coatings, and UV is the best in terms of how fast it can be deployed on a large scale, and the price of deployment.”

Kaminer worked with researchers at Spanish and British universities to examine the behavior of UVC light, and review existing research to asses its suitability for disinfecting against the coronavirus. The team included an optics specialist, an epidemiologist, an architect and a virus biologist, and has just published its findings in the American Chemical Society’s journal ACS Nano.

Oded Shoseyov, professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment, said that while UV is already used in some places, the paper is “important” in highlighting its potential for the pandemic. Shosayov, who didn’t take part in the research, said that it puts forward a “good idea” and “shows that UV can be scaled and installed in public places.”

Disinfection of office to prevent COVID-19. (Maksym Belchenko/iStock)

The researchers wrote that social distancing, mask-wearing and hand-washing work well to slow coronavirus spread but “within indoor spaces, such as shared offices, classrooms, healthcare facilities, and public transport vehicles, these methods may not reduce viral transmission rates to a sufficiently low level to prevent exponential growth of the pandemic.”

UVC light has a shorter wavelength than most other ultraviolet light. It was discovered in 1878, and has been artificially produced as a sterilizing method for years, though used with caution as it can be harmful to human skin.

Ido Kaminer (courtesy of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology)

Kaminer believes that leaders need to invest in integrating UVC lights with technological systems that operate public buildings and transportation, and give incentives to companies to do the same in their workplaces. He said that benefits will be reaped after the coronavirus pandemic as well, as they will disinfect against other viruses and bacteria.

When public buildings, offices, buses and trains are confirmed empty by staff, and motion sensors double check that nobody is present, ultraviolet lights should switch on to sterilize, he said. Bathrooms could automatically disinfect when empty.

Lights could be fitted at high-touch points, like buttons of elevators and ATMs, and pose no risk to human skin as they would never shine on people, Kaminer said. UV lights could be fitted in air-conditioning units, to disinfect air and prevent airborne transmission.

His team calculated costs. The $1-per-worker figure would cover the cost of offices or schools buying lamps that cover the spaces where workers or students spend most of their time, and disinfect the air that they breathe there, Kaminer said. With more investment, other areas could be covered too, he added.

“The technology already exists, it wouldn’t be expensive, and it can be used to make a difference,” Kaminer commented.

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