March 10, 2007

Do Ionizing Air Cleaners Really Work?

Posted in Health, Life, Me, Psychology, Science at 9:22 am by mj

Recently, you-know-who came home with a Bionaire PERMAtech(tm) ionizing air cleaner from Costco. She did this because I’ve been having the sniffles brought on by the elevated Bay Area attack of the trees (or is it dust?), which is always compounded by my preference for sleeping with the window open.

If you know me, you know I’m a big-time deep-in-my-bones skeptic. I might not always know exactly the right questions to ask, or be able to tell exactly what psychological forces or fraudulant pseudo-science is at play, but I am always skeptical. Marrying a Chinese girl was a big change for me, because Chinese are much more accepting of alternative medicines and anecdotal evidence than us poor Westerners. (Despite my skepticism, I have discovered several Chinese herbs and concoctions that work for me for various ailments, including, as far as I can tell given my limited capacity for controlled testing, my persistent nausea.)

The first red flag was thrown a few minutes into reading the brief manual, which offered this doozie:

You may also note after extended use, that dust may have collected around the grills or front panel. This is from the ionization affect caused by the negative ions exiting from the air outlet. This is additional evidence of the air cleaning effectiveness of negative ions.

Um, OK. By that logic, any normal fan has the same effectiveness, because they’re always accumulating dust around the grills and front panel. Not to mention the average computer. (“But, love, I have to keep a full rack of servers in our house…they’re purifying the air!“) I digress.

Wikipedia’s entry on Ionizers confirmed my suspicions, and cited articles indicating that the ozone created by ionization may actually be dangerous, which is not something I knew.

So, this week, I performed an unintentional experiment. I turned on the Ionizer, but I neglected to turn on the Ionizer. That is, by default, the Ionizer simply has a fan. You have to press a second button to enable the high electricity necessary for ionization. Good safety precaution. It remembers whether ionization was on or off…unless you unplug it. Which is what happened in this case.

For several days, then, she commented on how clean the air smelled in our bedroom, and on my lack of sniffles, even though I’d been sleeping with the window open and the heated blanket off. I started believing that, maybe, possibly, it was worth the money, and that it really was working. I was ready to admit that I was wrong (that happens a lot when you’re married).

Then, this morning, I discovered my error. The best thing I can now say is that the filter was cleaning the air in our bedroom. Which , if true, probably makes it worth the money (I think it was 50% off), since most fans simply scatter dust and pollen and tree bombs and anti-MJ missiles around the air.

But you-know-who? Her comment was simply that it explains why last night I was still sniffling in my sleep.

I’m sure Robert Cialdini would have something to say about that.

What do you think?



  1. Alastair said,

    Hurrah! I commend your spirit of skepticism! I’ve been trying to find impartial and empirical information on air ionizers for a day now, with very little luck I’m afraid. Most manufacturers state (of course they would) that the levels of ozone emitted by ionizers isn’t harmful… unless you happen to be asthmatic. Hmmm. You’re example with your wife illustrates just how easily the placebo effect seems to work, or at least how air filters are just as effective as ionizers. Back to researching.

  2. jim taika said,

    I would be more concern about products which are made to create ozone to room air on PURPOSE.

    It’s another typical conservative republican company from US which sells those products..
    They are skeptics about ionizers and try to turn everything upside down compared to other sources of information.

    I think you might like that site..

  3. keawja said,

    We all know how important air quality is, if you have ever spent a few hours on a plane you probably know that poor air quality has very negative effects, and that in some cases air quality has a very significant effect on general health.

    Air Purifier Home

  4. the best air purifiers are usually the ones using hepa filters but they are very very expensive *-.

  5. Martella said,

    For a while there, ionic air purifiers took the world of air purification by storm. People were drawn in by their quiet operation, the fact that they don’t use or require filters, and for their energy efficiency. It seemed as if HEPA air purifiers had some legitimate competition for the very first time. It didn’t take long, though, for news about the problems with ionic air purifiers to spread. The biggest concern that haunts the supposed benefits of these machines is their close association with ozone. Indeed, ionic air purifiers produce ozone as a byproduct – and ozone is a proven lung irritant that flies in the face of improving indoor air quality.


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