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Memphis schools use controversial technology to clean air

In October 2020, while Memphis-Shelby County Schools were teaching remotely because of the pandemic, and the state was pressuring administrators to reopen as soon as possible, Superintendent Joris Ray sent Gov. Bill Lee a letter.

In the letter, Ray asked the governor for $25 million to install bipolar ionization devices in all the district’s 172 schools as well as administrative offices.

“Through our research and vetting of other air quality solutions we have identified a technology solution that data indicates will put us in the best position to minimize the spread of aerosol-based contaminants and disease,” Ray said in his letter to Lee.

The technology provides “the best defense to eliminate airborne pathogens, kill mold, bacteria, harmful gases, and viruses in the space using existing HVAC systems without producing any byproduct harmful gases,” Ray wrote.

The CDC, EPA, an industry standards association, and even a medical journal beg to differ.

Company’s claims

Eighty-three ionizers were installed last summer at Chimneyrock Elementary. Global Plasma Solutions says its bipolar ionizers are used in 1,300 K–12 schools and on 400 U.S. college campuses. That now includes all Memphis-Shelby County Schools, DeSoto County Schools, and Arrow Academy of Excellence Charter School on Semmes. (Courtesy of Memphis-Shelby County Schools)
Eighty-three ionizers were installed last summer at Chimneyrock Elementary. Global Plasma Solutions says its bipolar ionizers are used in 1,300 K–12 schools and on 400 U.S. college campuses. That now includes all Memphis-Shelby County Schools, DeSoto County Schools, and Arrow Academy of Excellence Charter School on Semmes. (Courtesy of Memphis-Shelby County Schools)

Ray’s request was based on information from Global Plasma Solutions (GPS), a Charlotte, North Carolina, company that manufacturers its proprietary Needle Point Bi-Polar Ionization (NPBI) technology.

In June 2020,  opens in a new windowGPS announced “industry-leading ionization testing results, demonstrating a 99.4% reduction rate on a SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) surface strain within 30 minutes, the first instance in which an air purification company has effectively neutralized SARS-CoV-2.”

GPS noted that the tests were designed “to mimic ionization conditions like that of a commercial aircraft’s fuselage.”

“The testing results we achieved through our proprietary needlepoint bipolar ionization technology clearly demonstrate that Global Plasma Solutions is the gold standard in air purification,” Charles Waddell, GPS founder and chief technology officer, said in a press release.

The  opens in a new windowCDC considers bipolar ionization “an emerging technology, and little research is available that evaluates it outside of lab conditions. Bipolar ionization has the potential to generate ozone and other potentially harmful by-products indoors unless specific precautions are taken in the product design and maintenance.”

The  opens in a new windowEPA says that “As typical of newer technologies, the evidence for safety and effectiveness of ionizers is less documented than for more established ones, such as filtration.”

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE)  opens in a new windowsays that “Convincing scientifically-rigorous, peer-reviewed studies do not currently exist on this emerging technology.”

And the respected medical journal, the Lancet,  opens in a new windowsays, “Ionizers are generally considered less scientifically defensible due to their often unproven efficacies and due to their potential for degrading the quality of the air through the generation of harmful secondary pollutants.”

The technology

Bipolar ionization works like static electricity.

Small electrostatic ionization devices are installed in existing HVAC systems. The small bars or boxes shoot hundreds of millions of tiny, electrically charged ions into the air. The HVAC systems disperse the ions throughout the building.

The charged ions, manufacturers say, attract and cling to viral particles in the air. As the particles cluster, they become larger and easier to filter out of the air.

The charged ions, manufacturers say, also attack and deactivate certain bacteria, pathogens, airborne particles, and volatile organic compounds.

But studies say ionizers can produce troubling and unhealthy levels of negative ions, free radicals, and ozone.

Negative ions are floating molecules that have been charged with electricity. They occur naturally in UV rays from the sun, waterfalls, and thunderstorms.

Some research has shown that exposure to negative ions can cleanse air and might have some beneficial health impacts.

But research also shows that negative ions and free radicals are unstable, and can cause oxidative stress, which can damage cells, including lung tissue, and lead to other diseases.

“Negative ion air purifiers are cost-effective in the removal of air particulates, but generate negative ions of unknown health consequences,” concluded a  opens in a new window2020 study by researchers in China and the U.S. “Exposure to negative ions was significantly associated with increased systemic oxidative stress levels.”

Ionizers also indirectly produce ozone, a highly reactive form of oxygen that can damage lungs and worsen chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma.

Last August, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America expressed concern about “the use of unproven technologies” — including ionization — to address poor indoor air quality in schools.

“The AAFA urges all school superintendents to reject unproven technologies being marketed to improve indoor air in schools,” Kenneth Mendez, the organization’s president, wrote in a  opens in a new windowletter to the School Superintendents Association.

Some ionizers are  opens in a new windowUL certified to produce undetectable levels of ozone, including those installed by MSCS, but few standards and little oversight exist to keep levels in check.

“To the extent that there are testing standards for ionization and other devices, those are largely industry-led standards that remain underdeveloped at this point, focused mostly on ensuring just one pollutant, ozone, is not generated during operation,” according to a  opens in a new window2021 study by researchers at Illinois Tech, Portland State University, and Colorado State University.

Better understanding needed

A worker installs bipolar ionizers at Shrine School, which serves students with multiple disabilities and dual diagnoses ages 4-22. Before schools reopened last August, Gipson Mechanical installed 12,500 GPS Needlepoint Bi-Polar Ionizers in the district’s 172 schools. (Courtesy of Memphis-Shelby County Schools)
A worker installs bipolar ionizers at Shrine School, which serves students with multiple disabilities and dual diagnoses ages 4-22. Before schools reopened last August, Gipson Mechanical installed 12,500 GPS Needlepoint Bi-Polar Ionizers in the district’s 172 schools. (Courtesy of Memphis-Shelby County Schools)

“We should have a much better understanding of these effects before widespread use of these types of devices,” wrote Delphine Farmer, a chemistry professor at Colorado State University and co-lead author of the study.

On March 9 last year, Ray brought a proposal to spend $24.7 million in federal COVID-relief funds on bipolar ionization to the school board’s Procurement and Contracts Committee.

To make the case for bipolar ionization, the staff presented four slides with information provided by GPS.

One slide was labeled “NPBI Testing Summary.” It showed that the technology’s “kill rate” for the coronavirus was 99.40%. It showed the testing “time in chamber” was 30 minutes.

The slide didn’t mention that the results were from a GPS-funded study, or that the testing “chamber” was the size of a shoebox. It also didn’t explain how the “kill rate” was measured, or that the device would deliver 13 times less ion power to a full-sized classroom.

Another slide showed GPS’ claims about the technology:

  • Odors Neutralized by destroying VOCs (volatile organic compounds)
  • Pathogens Killed (Bacteria, Viruses, Mold)
  • Helps to Control Allergens/ Asthma
  • Energy Savings of up to 30% by Reducing Outdoor Air Intake

The presentation also didn’t mention GPS’ own disclaimer: “GPS products have not been evaluated by the FDA as medical devices and, therefore, are not intended to treat, cure, or prevent infections or diseases caused by certain viruses or bacteria,” the company states on its website. “The use of this technology is not intended to take the place of reasonable precautions to prevent the transmission of disease.”

During the presentation on bipolar ionizers, only one school board member asked a question, but it wasn’t about the technology. It was about the bidding process.

Three bidders

Joyce Dorse-Coleman, committee chairwoman, asked to see the “scorecard.” That’s the staff’s evaluation of bids made by three companies to install the ionizers.

“I don’t think it’s fair to constantly ask us to approve something when we don’t see the scoreboard,” Dorse-Coleman said.

The school district received three bids for the bipolar ionization project: Gipson Mechanical Contractors scored 3.48; Siemens Industry scored 3.25; Entegrity Energy Partners scored 2.28.

On April 6 last year, the Shelby County Board of Education approved — unanimously and without discussion —  opens in a new windowspending $24.7 million in federal CARES Act funds on the “unproven” air-cleaning technology. The  opens in a new windowcontract was awarded to Gipson of Memphis.

Later that month, the Lancet’s COVID-19 Commission issued its report on improving indoor air quality in schools:

“As government pandemic relief becomes available to schools, there is an unprecedented opportunity to address a decades-long neglect of school building infrastructure, but also a significant risk of squandering funds on inappropriate, unproven and/or ineffective technologies,” the report stated. “Unfortunately, there are reports of schools spending millions of dollars on unproven or largely ineffective air cleaning technologies like ionizers …”

In May 2021, the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University issued a  opens in a new windowreport on “School Ventilation: A Vital Tool to Reduce COVID-19 Spread.”

“School systems should use only proven technologies for improving indoor air quality: appropriate ventilation, HEPA filtration, or ultraviolet germicidal irradiation,” the report stated.

“School systems should not use unproven technologies such as ozone generators, ionization, plasma, and air disinfection with chemical foggers and sprays. The effect of these cleaning methods on children has not been tested and may be detrimental to their health.”

Ionizers widely used

Global Plasma Systems says its bipolar ionizers are used in 1,300 K–12 schools and on 400 U.S. college campuses.

That now includes Memphis-Shelby County Schools, DeSoto County Schools and Arrow Academy of Excellence Charter School on Semmes, according to a March 2021 memo from Allworld Project Management.

DeSoto County Schools received $16.3 million in federal COVID relief.

“What we’re doing with our funds is taking our worst units, those that have malfunctioned or are at the age where they’re getting difficult and those are the ones we are replacing,” said Rob Chase, chief operations officer for DeSoto County Schools. “They will have ionizers on there that will help with your COVID-19 stuff and air quality.”

Arlington Community Schools is spending $1.3 million of its $10.4 million on HVAC upgrades. The district’s COVID-relief spending plan mentions a possible unspecified “ionization project” in its contingency plans.

The other five municipal school districts in Shelby County chose not to install ionizers.

“We have been approached by a number of companies claiming, ‘total removal’ or ‘total disinfection’ through mechanical additions, but we do not feel these newer technologies have been sufficiently vetted for safety and efficacy to install at this time,” said Thomas Dougherty, chief of operations for Collierville Municipal Schools.

Filters used instead

The district received $25.2 million in COVID relief. “HVAC units were replaced with MERV-13 filters,” according to the district’s COVID-relief spending plan. “This project will exceed all CDC recommendations for clean air in the classrooms, provide the exchange of fresh air multiple times a 24-hour period.”

Millington Schools, which received $11.1 million, replaced HVAC systems at all three schools.

Bartlett’s plan includes updating the HVAC system at Bartlett Freshman Academy. “The current HVAC systems do not allow for fresh air to enter the building,” according to the plan. Bartlett received $27.6 million.

Germantown’s plan includes “replacing the existing 66 HVAC systems with a new and improved system and a new/upgraded air filtration system for the classroom addition” at Germantown Middle School. The district received $17.8 million.

Lakeland’s plan includes HVAC upgrades, but not ionizers. The district received $4.5 million.

The Achievement School District is spending $4.5 million of its $85.9 million on HVAC repairs and upgrades. The district’s plan does not mention ionizers.

Last May, a consumer in Maryland filed a  opens in a new windowfederal class action lawsuit against GPS, saying the company makes “deceptive, misleading, and false” claims about its products based on company-funded studies that are “not applicable to real world conditions.”

Later that month, school officials in New Jersey and California disconnected hundreds of ionization devices.

In August, GPS filed a  opens in a new windowlawsuit against enVerid Systems, alleging that the company and its science adviser have “been engaged in a multi-year campaign … to misrepresent safety concerns surrounding GPS technology for the purposes of undermining GPS as a competitor … . This effort is aimed to drive GPS’s current and prospective customers away from GPS to purchase products from enVerid.”

At a school board workshop last June 24, MSCS officials responded to board members’ concerns about the GPS litigation and general skepticism about bipolar ionization.

Use of ionizers defended

Phillips said the district had considered and evaluated other options for improving indoor air quality in schools, including ventilation and filtration, but that their research identified ionization as “the type of technology that met the district’s requirements to provide an effective, cost competitive, and safe type of solution for indoor air quality improvement, minimizing the spread of aerosol-based contaminants and disease.”

In a  opens in a new windowpresentation, on Slide 23, Phillips explained the benefits of needlepoint bipolar ionization, repeating GPS’ own claims about the product nearly word-for-word[JD1] [DW2] .

Phillips noted that GPS’ NPBI technology has been certified by UL 867 and UL 2998 not to introduce more than five parts per billion of ozone. That’s the threshold for zero ozone emissions.

“This is one of the best technologies out there for air purification,” Phillips told the board. “They have the UL certification to prove it. They have all the testing, despite what the naysayers are saying.”

Results reported

Memphis-Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray speaks during the State of the District address on Wednesday, Feb. 23. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)
Memphis-Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray speaks during the State of the District address on Wednesday, Feb. 23. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

Before Memphis-Shelby County Schools reopened last August, Gipson Mechanical installed 12,500 GPS Needlepoint Bi-Polar Ionizers in the district’s 172 schools.

“The units are working well to introduce air purifying ions into the air to improve indoor air quality,” Phillips told school board members.

Negative ion levels in all schools increased dramatically, according to pre- and post-installation measurements by the district. Indoor ion concentrations in buildings without ionizers generally range from 1,000 to 3,000 ions per cc[JD3] .

Post-installation measurements ranged from 9,500 at Gardenview Elementary to 380,000 at Alton Elementary.

Dexter Elementary’s ion readings increased from 450 before installation to 164,000 after.

White Station High’s ion readings increased from 1,600 before to 370,000 after.

“Wow. Just wow,” said Dr. Parham Azizi of Harvard University’s T.H. Chen School of Public Health.

Azizi said the elevated ion levels are troubling.

“When you are increasing ion levels three-fold or more, that’s not a good idea,” Azizi said. “They are mostly not effective in solving the problem (of indoor air quality), while they potentially can have adverse health impacts that are not fully understood.”

Ben Wheeler, an intern for the Institute for Public Service Reporting, contributed to this story.

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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