The other day, someone on Quora asked whether ionizers 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:
It’s also important because several friends in China have sent me links to ionizer products like this:
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:
That ionizer shoots out negative ions:
Those ions cause the particles to stick to surfaces, like my bed, the wall, and the floor:
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.
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:
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:
So when people send me links asking about these “miraculous” ionizer purifiers, I tell them to steer clear.
One reason ionizers are unnecessary
In my mind, the biggest reason ionizers are unnecessary is that there’s already technology out there that is low-cost and highly effective. I use HEPA filters. HEPAs actually capture particles–be it PM2.5 or PM10–and they are backed by empirical tests (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). You can see that effectiveness in action in this live test I did of a HEPA filter chewing through real Beijing air:
Thomas is an Associate Professor of Behavior Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the founder of Smart Air, a social enterprise to help people in China breathe clean air without shelling out thousands of dollars for expensive purifiers.