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Buyer Beware: Coronavirus-Killing Lighting

There are still plenty of unanswered questions about infection control methods and protection against COVID-19. With so much misinformation floating around, some lighting brands are making claims regarding coronavirus-killing lighting. Before investing in costly upgrades that allegedly provide protection, it’s important to learn more about this approach.

While the primary source of UV light is the sun, there are also other, man-made sources like tanning beds. There are three types of UV light radiation based on wavelength measurement:

  • UV-A – This type of UV radiation has the longest wavelength and makes up most of the radiation we see on earth as they travel through the ozone layer. UV-A causes sunburns, and exposure over time can lead to premature aging and skin cancer.
  • UV-B – With shorter wavelengths, UV-B radiation is mostly absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere and poses less of an exposure risk — our bodies actually need it to produce Vitamin D. However, too much can also have the same effects as UV-A exposure.
  • UV-C – It’s a good thing this UV radiation doesn’t reach the earth’s surface; it’s the most harmful of the three types and has the most energy. Man-made UV-C devices have been used for years to sanitize and disinfect water, air, and surfaces.

Because of its short wavelength and higher energy frequency, UV-C radiation has the ability to kill pathogens, including viruses and bacteria. It essentially breaks the bonds between the RNA and DNA molecules in these pathogens and stops their ability to multiply and spread. This also offers powerful protection against mutated pathogens that are known as “superbugs.” It doesn’t require medication or toxic chemicals to be effective and can be used against newly discovered germs.

It would seem that the evidence suggests that UV light radiation can kill SARS-CoV-2 (or COVID-19) and scientists and researchers seem to stand behind the evidence: “UV light has been shown to destroy other coronaviruses, so it will probably work on the novel coronavirus.” In fact, there is a case study to show “the efficacy and use of an automated triple-emitter whole room UV-C disinfection system to inactivate mouse hepatitis virus, strain A59 (MHV-A59) and MERS-CoV viruses on surfaces.” MERS-CoV is the specific coronavirus that causes Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS).

Healthcare facilities and hospitals have been using UV-C light devices for years. In 1936, Dr. Deryl Hart of Duke University discovered that the use of UV-C light in surgical settings helped to reduce post-operative infection rates by nearly 12%. It was then widely accepted as a disinfectant strategy and added to HVAC systems to purify air, and implemented in water purification methods to kill bacteria.

Despite the pathogen-killing benefits of UV-C radiation, it can be extremely harmful if not used correctly. Hospital-grade UV-C light devices emit the radiation in high doses, away from patients, and administered by trained healthcare professionals that know how to operate the machines safely. This equipment is highly regulated and expertly maintained to ensure it doesn’t pose a hazard to patients and staff.

However, consumer products that claim to sanitize and disinfect items (and hands) can pose a serious risk. These devices aren’t generally approved by the FDA, and there’s little oversight or regulation to ensure that they are both effective and safe. Improper use can cause serious burns to skin and eyes, and they often don’t emit enough light to thoroughly kill germs as the manufacturers may claim.

UV-C lights in retail and industrial applications also come with a caveat. The effectiveness of UV light to kill germs in the air and water is widely known, but there’s no concrete research that supports the use of UV lights to disinfect skin and clothing. In order for these fixtures to kill viruses, they must emit UV-C light at a range of 200-280 nanometers — levels which could cause damage to human skin and eyes. Lighting manufacturers who make false claims about their product could be putting consumers in harm’s way and may end up ruining their reputation altogether.

Ultimately, there’s simply not enough research or evidence to support the efficacy of UV-C consumer devices or commercial lighting. Before you decide to replace your current fixtures with lighting that claims to kill COVID-19, get in touch with the experts. With guidance from lighting professions — like the team here at Starbeam — you can help better understand some of the myths surrounding UV lighting, and ensure you’re choosing the right option to keep your facility safe.