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Do ionizers actually clean air?

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The other day, someone on Quora asked whether ionizer fans actually purify the air. This is an important question because ionizer purifiers are all over the place. For example, I was at a friend’s apartment in the US, and I saw his tower fan had an ionizer button on it:

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It’s also important because several friends in China have sent me links to products like this:

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Amazing! A “miraculous purifier” that removes PM 2.5 and formaldehyde in just 30 seconds. And all that for far cheaper than regular purifiers and even cheaper than building your own purifier.

If this is true, my life in Beijing is now so much easier. But is it true?

So how do ionizers work? 

Here’s my bedroom, with an ionizer and bad particles in the air:

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That ionizer shoots out negative ions:

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Those ions cause the particles to stick to surfaces, like my bed, the wall, and the floor:

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That’s the principle behind ion generators. It’s hard to see it happening with these tiny particles, but you’ve seen it on a visible scale if you’ve seen someone rub a balloon on their hair and then stick it to a wall.

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But wait #1

A summary of scientific tests of air purifiers found that most ionizers have no noticeable effect on particulate levels (p. 8). Their conclusion is that most ionizers are too weak to have an effect. Studies do show an effect if they use very strong ionizers–much stronger than most ionizers on the market (p. 19).

But wait #2

OK, so regular ionizers don’t work, but we can use a big one! The problem is, when you put that many ions into the air, it produces ozone. Ozone is harmful, so that’s not good!

But wait #3

Even if we use a really strong ionizer and even if we can accept the ozone, you might have noticed that the ionizer didn’t actually filter out the particles. It just made them stick to my bed, wall, and floor.

First, that’s gross. Since the particles floating around here in Beijing include things like arsenic cadmium, and lead, I’d rather not have them stick to my pillow.

Second, they’re still a danger. The particles are just sticking to my bed. So let’s say Thomas comes home:

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When I sit down on my bed, I’ll dislodge those particles, and they’ll float back into the air. Here’s my super scientific rendering of that process:

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Those problems are what led Consumer Reports to publish tests and warn people not to buy the Sharper Image Ionic Breeze. Sharper Image sued Consumer Reports; Consumer Reports won.

So when people send me links asking about these “miraculous” purifiers, I tell them to steer clear.

Careful not to overgeneralize

But let’s not draw too broad of a conclusion here. This doesn’t mean ALL air purifiers are junk. Instead, I use HEPA filters. HEPAs actually capture particles, and they are backed by empirical tests (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Here’s a little test I did with HEPA filters in Beijing: