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There’s no silver bullet for COVID-19, but there may be a magic wand. Is it safe, though?
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, people around the world have fervently sought advice on what to do, and what not to do, to slow the virus’ spread. Unsurprisingly, this has given way to a lot of misinformation, scamming, and mixed-messaging. Depending on whom you ask, you’ll receive wildly varying opinions on the following:
- How many seconds should I wash my hands for?
- To what extent are face masks effective in slowing the spread of the coronavirus?
- Should I wash my grocery store shopping?
- Can the virus live on plastic for 72 hours?
- Where can I buy the best-quality, COVID-19-zapping UV wand?
The last point has become a major cause for concern as momentum grows surrounding ultraviolet (UV) light as a means for sterilizing devices and homes.
Let’s face it, there’s something very appealing about being able to wave a magic UV wand to eliminate all the coronavirus germs on your cellphone and make your home a safer place to be.
What Is UVC Light?
UV light is an invisible electromagnetic radiation that falls between 180 and 400 nanometers in wavelength. It is made up of three classes: UVA, UVB, and UVC.
Humans are mostly exposed to natural UV light via the sun, but there are also several man-made sources, including tanning beds.
The current hype surrounding UV light is focussed specifically on UVC light, which has the most energy, the shortest wavelength (180–280 nanometers), and is ultimately the most dangerous on the UV spectrum. Thankfully, UVC light emitted by the sun is completely absorbed by the ozone layer, which ensures our skin and eyes aren’t directly exposed to its harmful rays.
When deployed artificially, however, UVC can be an extremely useful tool. For decades, this germicide has been used to disinfect water, pharmaceutical and medical products, money, buses, elevators, and hospital surfaces, killing up to 99.99% of bacteria and viruses. It functions by breaking up the genetic material in air or waterborne pathogens and adhering to surfaces to prevent reproduction.
In the past, UVC light has successfully been used as a disinfectant against the coronaviruses leading to SARS and MERS. Many have assumed it will have the same impact on the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, although this is yet to be proven.
COVID-19 Sparks a Rise in At-home UVC Products
UVC products divide neatly into two categories:
- Commercial-grade products — These products are deployed by organizations and medical centers to disinfect on a large scale.
- Consumer-facing products — These products are cheaper and often unregulated, including handheld UVC wands and lamps.
In response to COVID-19, production and demand have ramped up in both categories. Digital Aerolus in Kansas has produced a UVC drone, Big Ass Fans in Kentucky has designed a UVC ceiling fan, Samsung recently unveiled a UV Steriliser complete with wireless charger, which means you can disinfect and charge your devices at the same time, and a search for “UVC wand” on Amazon returns hundreds of results.
It’s not hard to understand why personal UVC lights are so in demand right now, but regulators and experts have raised some fairly major concerns about the safety and effectiveness of these products.
Firstly, handheld UVC lights have the potential to be extremely dangerous. If you were to wave a UVC wand around your home, it would be all too easy to expose yourself, a child, or even a pet to skin and eye damage, and it can take several days before the injury becomes apparent. Many UVC wands on the market are not equipped with child locks, and minimal information is provided on how to safely use the device around the home.
Secondly, lots of devices on the market are either fake or completely ineffective. Even a high-powered device takes time to work, and most UVC wands on the market are not of the best quality. To successfully disinfect a surface, like a tabletop, the user would need to wave their device around for an extended period, which is as much a hassle as it is likely to be ineffective.
Underwriters Laboratories, which tests UVC products to award safety certifications, has observed a major uptick in UVC production. Alongside the National Electrical Manufacturers Association and the American Lighting Association, the company has produced a paper outlining the risks of using uncertified UVC products.
Meanwhile, the FDA provided new guidance in August warning consumers about the risks of UVC devices and The World Health Organization (WHO) released advice reminding people that UV light should not be used to sterilize hands or other areas of skin.
In many circumstances, the benefits of UVC light are being realized. But, as far as personal UVC products are concerned, they’re probably more trouble than they’re worth.
Image Credit: Nor Gal / Shutterstock.com
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