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In the frenzy, schools are buying technology that academic air-quality experts warn can lull them into a false sense of security or even potentially harm kids. And schools often overlook the fact that their trusted contractors — typically engineering, HVAC or consulting firms — stand to earn big money from the deals, KHN found.
Academic experts are encouraging schools to pump in more fresh air and use tried-and-true filters, like HEPA, to capture the virus. Yet every ion- or hydroxyl-blasting air purifier sale strengthens a firm’s next pitch: The device is doing a great job in the neighboring town.
“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more people buy these technologies, the more they get legitimacy,” said Jeffrey Siegel, a civil engineering professor at the University of Toronto. “It’s really the complete wild west out there.”
Marwa Zaatari, a member of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ (ASHRAE) Epidemic Task Force, first compiled a list of schools and districts using such devices.
“We’re going to live in a world where the air quality in schools is worse after the pandemic, after all of this money,” Zaatari said. “It’s really sickening.”
The sales race is fueled by roughly $193 billion in federal funds allocated to schools for teacher pay and safety upgrades — a giant fund that can be used to buy air cleaners. And Democrats are pushing for $100 billion more that could also be spent on air cleaners.
There is virtually no federal oversight or enforcement of safe air-cleaning technology. Only California bans air cleaners that emit a certain amount of ozone.
U.S. Rep. Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), chair of the House Committee on Labor and Education, said the federal government typically is not involved in local decisions of what products to buy, although he hopes for more federal guidance.
In the meantime, “these school systems are dealing with contractors providing all kinds of services,” he said, “so you just have to trust them to get the best expert advice on what to do.”
These go-between contractors — and the air cleaner companies themselves — have a stake in the sales. While their names might appear in school board records, their role in selling the device or commission from the deal is seldom made public, KHN found.
“We have reps [who] made over 6-figures in 1 month selling to 1 school district,” the ad says. “This could be the biggest opportunity you have seen!”
‘A tiny bit of ozone’
In Newark, administrators welcomed students back to class this month with more than 3,200 Odorox units, purchased with $7.5 million in federal funds, said Steven Morlino, executive director of Facilities Management for Newark Public Schools.
“I think parents feel pretty comfortable that their children are going to a safe environment,” he said. “And so did the staff.”
Environmental health and air-quality experts, though, are alarmed by the district’s plan.
That level exceeds the industry’s self-imposed limit by more than 10 times and is “unacceptable,” according to William Bahnfleth, an architectural engineering professor at Penn State who studies indoor air quality and leads the ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force.
“We provide very stringent operating guidelines around the size of room that our different devices should be put in,” he said. But school staffers are often not warned about the potential problems if a too-powerful device is used in a too-small room, he acknowledged.
You can’t see or smell ozone, but lungs treat it like a “foreign invader,” said Michael Jerrett, who has studied its health effects as director of the UCLA Center for Occupational and Environmental Health.
Lung cells mount an immune-like response, which can trigger asthma complications and divert energy from normal lung function, he said. Chronic exposure has been linked to more emergency room visits and can even cause premature death. Once harmed, Jerrett said, children’s lungs may not regain full function.
“Ozone is a very serious public health problem,” Jerrett said.
Adding ozone into the classroom is “just nightmarish,” Siegel, of the University of Toronto, said.
Morlino said the district plans to monitor ozone levels in each classroom, based on the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration level for working adults, which is 100 parts per billion.
“In our research of the product,” he said, “we’ve determined it’s within the guidelines the federal government produces.”
While legal for healthy working adults, the work-safety standard should not apply to developing children, said Michael Kleinman, an air-quality researcher at the UC Irvine School of Medicine. “It’s not a good device to be using in the presence of children,” he said.
Huc, the CEO, said his team has measured levels of ozone that are higher outdoors in Newark than inside — with his company’s units running.
“There is a tiny bit of ozone that is introduced, but it’s very, very low,” he said. “And you get the benefit of the antimicrobial effect, you get the benefit of reduction of pathogens, which we’ve demonstrated in a number of studies, and you get the reduction of VOC [volatile organic compounds].”
Meanwhile, despite expert concerns, the devices continue to pop up in classrooms and school nurses’ offices across the state, said Allen Barkkume, an industrial hygienist for the New Jersey teachers union.
He doesn’t blame schools for buying them, as they’re a lot less expensive than overhauling ventilation systems. Teachers often push for the devices in their classrooms, he said, as they see them in the nurses’ offices and think it’ll keep them safe. And superintendents are not well-versed in air quality’s complex scientific concepts.
“Nothing sounds better than something that’s cheap, quiet, small and easy to find, and we can stick them in every classroom,” Barkkume said.
Tested in shoebox, sold for classrooms
But Justin Klabin, a building developer with a background in indoor air quality and two sons in the district, was not convinced.
But the company’s shoebox study and inflated ion blast numbers that helped sell the product last year leave a potential customer with little sense of how the device would perform in a classroom, Zaatari said.
“It’s a high cost for nothing,” Zaatari said. The company has sued her and another air-quality consultant for criticizing their devices. Of the pending case, Zaatari said it is a David-versus-Goliath situation, but she will not be deterred from speaking on behalf of children.
He also said the company is proud to meet the ASHRAE “zero ozone” certification.
Other parents joined Klabin’s campaign, including Melanie Robbins, the mom of a kindergartener and a child in pre-K. Armed with her background in nonprofit advocacy, she reached out to experts. She and other parents spoke at local government meetings about their concerns.
In April, the superintendent told parents the school would turn off the devices, but parents say they haven’t turned them all off.
The catch: A GPS contractor installed its ionization technology in the East Wing of the White House after it was purchased in 2018 — before Covid emerged, according to GPS’ Boyle. But the company was still using the White House logo as a marketing image on its website when KHN asked the White House about the advertising in April. It was taken down shortly thereafter.
Boyle said GPS was “recently informed that the White House logo may not be used for marketing purposes, and promptly complied.”
The Montclair school district did not respond to requests for comment.
“I want to bang my head against the wall, it’s so black-and-white,” Robbins said. “Admit this is a poor purchase. The district got played.”
Selling ‘the Big Kahuna’
Academic air-quality experts agree on what’s best for schools: More outside air pumped into classes, MERV 13 filters in heating systems and portable HEPA filters. The solution is time-tested and effective, they say. Yet as common commodities, like a pair of khaki pants, these items are not widely flogged by a sales force chasing big commissions.
After Covid hit, Tony Barron said the companies pitched air purifying technology nonstop to the Kansas district where he worked as a facility manager last fall.
Pressure came from inside the school as well. Teachers sent links for air cleaners they saw on the news. His superintendent had him meet with a friend who sold ionization products. He got constant calls, mail and email from mechanical engineering companies.
The hundreds of phone calls from air cleaner pitches were overwhelming, said Chris Crockett, director of facilities for Turner USD 202 in Kansas City, Kansas. While he wanted to trust the contractors he had worked with, he tested four products before deciding to spend several hundred thousand dollars.
“Custodial supply companies see the writing on the wall, that there’s a lot of money out there,” he said. “And then a lot of money is going to be spent on HVAC systems.”
After KHN asked ActivePure for comment, the Enviro Technology Pros YouTube videos about ActivePure were no longer accessible publicly.
ActivePure did not respond to requests for comment but has said its devices are effective and one is validated by the Food and Drug Administration.
An Enviro Technology Pros founder, Rod Norman, told KHN the company was asked to take the posts down by Vollara, a company related to ActivePure. He called sales to schools “the big kahuna.”
Shortly after he spoke with KHN, the website for his own company was taken down.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.
Shoshana Dubnow contributed to this report.
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