A return to normal means winning the war against COVID-19 and one weapon in our war chest could be a UVC light bulb. Man-made UVC devices are not new, but their use is expanding as a way to kill the virus. Amazon just announced the development of a UVC robot to disinfect warehouses and Whole Foods grocery stores. There’s also another development at Columbia University that could easily kill this virus and keep future ones from ever getting a foothold.
The Amazon announcement is big news for employees. Many have complained and protested about the lack of safety measures for warehouse workers, Some states are also concerned and have demanded details on safety measures that Amazon is providing for employees. The company said during a recent earnings call that it would spend all $4 billion of its anticipated second quarter profits on ways to address COVID-19 that includes employee protections. This new robot appears to be part of Amazon’s plan.
Amazon’s Germicidal UVC Robot
The Amazon UVC robot was just featured on 60 Minutes so you may have seen it there. (1) It has a bank of UVC lights that shine on products and surfaces as it rolls around an unoccupied distribution center or grocery store. It’s still in development but the idea could make it easy to disinfect large spaces, and not just for Amazon, but for any kind of brick-and-mortar workplace, so long as it’s unoccupied.
Smaller UVC devices are already available to the public, such as a UVC wand. You can wave them over objects to disinfect them but you are also warned to keep the light shining away from you. You may have also seen small UVC boxes that you can use to disinfect your cell phone, keys or other small items.
Some portable air purifiers include germicidal UVC lights. When the fan on the air purifier is running, the air passes by the light which kills the germs. But, portable air purifiers are for small spaces. If you want to disinfect the air in a larger home or building, it’s better to install a UVC light into the air handler of the HVAC system. It won’t kill germs sitting on countertops or doorknobs however – because they are not directly exposed to the light.
Because of the recent shortage of masks and other personal protective equipment, some hospitals and other medical facilities have become creative with UVC technology. They’ve installed UVC lights inside a room or large container which can be used to hang gowns, gloves and masks for disinfecting.
UVC light is something we don’t typically think about. It’s comes pouring down toward earth from the sun, but the earth’s atmosphere filters it out so it never reaches the earth’s surface. We usually worry about getting too much UVA and UVB radiation. UVB is the more dangerous one of the two. It can cause sunburns and skin cancer. Too much UVA can age our skin and give us wrinkles. It may also contribute to skin cancer if you get too much, but it’s mostly good for getting a tan.
It’s a good thing UVC light isn’t something we have to worry about when we go outside. It can cause severe damage to skin, and eyes if you look at it. It can also destroy the genetic material of bacteria and viruses which is why it’s being developed for germicidal purposes. And there’s good news about a new kind of man-made UVC light that has the same effect on germs, but is harmless to humans.
Far-UVC Could Be a Game Changer
Researchers at Columbia University are working on something called “far-UVC” which is deadly to a virus but is not a threat to humans or animals. (2) Researcher David Brenner says, it could be a “game changer” in the fight against a virus like COVID-19.
The technology is described in a Columbia University blog called “Could Ultraviolet Technology Fight the Spread of Coronavirus?” It says that the university’s Center for Radiological Research is using “lamps that emit continuous, low doses of a particular wavelength of ultraviolet light, known as far-UVC, which can kill viruses and bacteria without harming human skin, eyes and other tissues, as is the problem with conventional UV light.”
Researchers say, it’s a low-cost, safe solution to killing airborne viruses within minutes of someone sneezing or coughing them into the air. They also say, it not only has the potential to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but could prevent future epidemics and pandemics along with viruses that we’re already dealing with like influenza and measles.
What researchers are envisioning are “safe overhead far-UVC lamps” in many kinds of indoor spaces. These bulbs could be designed to fit into existing light fixtures and used in any kind of setting including hospitals, clinics, offices, schools, airports, airplanes and other transportation hubs.
If what they say comes to pass, we could truly have an answer to many of the concerns we have about the safety of crowded public areas. I’m sure you’ve wondered whether you’ll ever feel safe riding public transportation or flying on a plane or going to a packed theater as we try to return to normal.
Again, this far-UVC technology is different than conventional UVC light. Conventional UVC light has already been in use but it cannot be used in a way that exposes a person’s skin or eyes to the light. It has to be used indirectly.
The Columbia University blog says that far-UVC lamps are in production now by several companies, but they are not yet in large-scale production and have not yet received approval from the Food and Drug Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency.
They will also be somewhat expensive at first — between $500 and $1000 a lamp. Prices will likely fall once they are being mass produced.
It’s not clear whether this technology will offer us any relief in the near future, but it’s something that gives me hope for a future that isn’t filled with worries about a tiny germ.
(1) UVC Robot: Business Insider