The process of air purification aims to remove contaminants and pollutants from the air. Even air that looks clear may be laden with solids like soot, dusts, and allergens, such as mold and pet dander. Gaseous pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and a suite of volatile organic compounds are invisible even in high concentrations. An air purifier can reduce or remove these adulterants.
There are a number of ways this can be achieved. Electrostatic or polarized media air purifiers add an electric charge to airborne particles and collect them on surfaces with an opposite charge. Some electric air cleaners exhaust the charged particles into their surrounds, where they quickly adhere to nearby surfaces. While this is effective at removing particulate matter from the air, it may result in increased cleaning requirements in the area around the purifier.
A MERV-rated filter, HEPA filter, and ULPA filter air purifiers use fiber filters to remove particulate matter from the air. A MERV rating is useful for HVAC engineers when designing a central heating or air conditioning system, but the level of filtration in even the highest rated MERV filters is still less than a HEPA filter.
A photocatalyst like titanium oxide can break volatile organic compounds down into non-toxic molecules when charged with ultraviolet light. Photocatalytic air purifiers1 are sometimes used in building HVAC systems, such as in an air air purifier for an office building.
Gaseous pollutants like the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) benzene, toluene, and xylene can also be removed by air purifiers with an activated carbon filter. The attach to the surface of the specially-treated carbon, removing them from the air.
There are many advantages to having air purification in your home. Air purifier benefits include lower allergen counts2 and fewer airborne particles3. Some volatile organic compounds are carcinogenic, so an air purifier that can reduce the number of VOCs in the air could reduce your exposure to these carcinogens.
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It might not always be straightforward to tell if the air is polluted. Common sense cues like visibility are of limited utility. Even when the air is polluted enough to be problematic for sensitive individuals, the haze is so low that visibility may be up to five miles.4 Air quality monitors can be purchased, and in fact some air purifiers incorporate an air quality sensor. The United States Environmental Protection Agency publishes a detailed Air Quality Index that can be accessed online.
A MERV rating, or Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value rating, is published by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE)5 and is accompanied by a number. The number is used to designate different levels of efficiency for different size particles. For example, a MERV 1 rating only removes less than 20% of particles 3 to 10 microns in diameter, and is so poor at removing particles smaller than 3 microns it isn’t even assessed for the ability to do so. A MERV 16 rating, on the other hand, removes at least 95% of particles .3 microns and larger.6
No, the process for removing carbon dioxide from air is called CO2 scrubbing. The process requires very specialized equipment, and is not used in home settings. Air purifiers do not add or remove large quantities of gases. However, air purifiers with carbon filters remove small amounts of volatile organic compounds.
You probably do need an air purifier. Even if you currently enjoy high air quality, situations can change and lead to reductions in air quality. For example, wildfires in the Western United States have led to dramatic increases in both outdoor and indoor air pollution levels7. An air purifier lets you stop worrying about whether your air quality is being negatively affected by events beyond your control.
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Master Air Purifier Sources:
Air quality sources: Air purification/filtration process sources: HEPA, UPLA, and MERV filter sources:
Air quality sources:https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.est.5b01236
Air purification/filtration process sources:https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/air-purifiers/buying-guide/index.htm
HEPA, UPLA, and MERV filter sources:https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16517004/