Companies sell activated carbon filters (also called “charcoal filters”) to remove chemicals like formaldehyde and benzene, but does carbon really work? The Smart Air lab put real-world carbon filters to the test.
Who Needs Carbon Filters Anyway?
HEPAs do an amazing job at removing particulates, but particulates aren’t everything. Gases like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are so small that they slip through HEPAs. “VOC” is a big category, including things like benzene and formaldehyde. VOCs can cause cancer, throat irritation, dizziness, and other not-fun side effects.
When I published the instructions for how to build your own purifier, I wasn’t comfortable recommending activated carbon because I hadn’t tested it, and I didn’t want to just trust what the big filter companies say. So this year, I set out on a journey to test whether carbon actually works.
Put to The Test: Does Carbon Really Work?
I soon learned that gas testing is not easy. First off, “harmful gases” is not a natural category. You can buy a particle counter that will detect all particles of a certain size, but there is no detector that will detect all gases. Instead, you need one for each type of gas, and that is not cheap.
In this case, my scientific curiosity cost me $3,542 for this Industrial Scientific Ibrid MX6. It detects VOCs, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and nitrogen dioxide. It uses a photo-ionization detector to measure VOCs from 0-2,000 parts per million with a resolution of .1.
Next, I needed a source of gas pollution. Interestingly enough, my apartment didn’t have enough VOCs to register on the MX6–nor did 8 other Beijing apartments I tested. (That speaks to whether purifier companies should scare people into thinking that everyone needs carbon.)
I ran four control tests with a fan but no filter. That way the room still has air flow, but no carbon. The cigarettes burned out after about 15 minutes, and I left the fans on for another 30 minutes.
Results: Does Carbon Really Work?
Looking at the Cannon + carbon alone after the cigarette extinguished, the VOCs dropped. Here is the data from one test:
But maybe the VOCs would have just dissipated on their own? From there, we can zoom out to include the time the cigarette was burning and the test where we had just a fan (no filter). From there, it becomes clearer that the carbon was removing VOCs above and beyond just having a fan on.
Averaging across all of the tests, the VOCs reached a maximum of about 1 ppm while the carbon was on. Without the carbon, VOCs reached 1.5 ppm.
After the cigarette burned out, the Cannon cleared the air of VOCs in just over 15 minutes on average. Without carbon, the air still had VOCs after 30 minutes.
Averaging over all of the tests, the carbon removed 38% of VOCs by the time the cigarettes burned out compared to the fan-only condition. The Cannon removed 68% after another 5 minutes and 100% by 20 minutes after the cigarettes burned out.
Does Everyone Need Carbon?
Does carbon really work? Yes. But does everyone need carbon? Purifier companies have a financial incentive to convince people to buy carbon filters. They make more money if they can scare people into buying carbon. But does everyone need carbon?
I don’t want to scare people into buying carbon. Why? In most homes, my MX6 detected zero VOCs. I only found VOCs in homes that had an obvious source of pollution such as remodeling or smoke. And in all of the places where the MX6 detected VOCs, I was able to notice a chemical smell. That makes sense, since lots of VOCs have noticeable smells, like benzene, toluene, and formaldehyde.
Now, I don’t want to say that VOCs are never a problem. Photo ionization detectors like the MX6 are not the most sensitive test type out there. I bet I’d pick up small amounts of VOCs if I sent air samples to a laboratory.
However, scientists have used fancier methods and found similar results. For example, scientists in Hong Kong tested homes and found that most non-smoking homes did not have un-safe levels of VOCs. We need more tests like this to be sure.
For now, I will not be using carbon in my home, but I think it is right for people whose homes have:
1. Recent remodeling
2. Recent painting
5. Nearby sources of gas pollutants (such as living near a factory)
6. Symptoms such as inflammation and asthma
Do I Still Need The HEPA?
Yes. Carbon captures gas pollutants, not particulate pollution. I wouldn’t have even tested this, but Anna accidentally forgot to attach the HEPA and unknowingly ran a regular particulate room test with carbon only.
The results weren’t pretty–far below the 95% reduction with the added HEPA. Thus, I do not recommend using carbon only.
As always, I’m posting the raw data and more details on the methods for fellow nerds below.