Can Air Conditioning Spread COVID-19?

Can Air Conditioning Spread COVID-19?
 
 
 
 

It's summer, and (data from NASA) shows that 2020 is the hottest year recorded with May registering 1.5 degrees Celsius hotter than the average month recorded since 1880. With incidents of heatwaves reported in the South and Southwest in the U.S., this is the time air conditioners are in full blast. But, people are worried, and are wondering: Can Covid-19 be spread by air conditioning? Probably not. And here’s why.

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Image: Shutterstock

The Role of Air Conditioning

So far, there haven’t been sufficient evidence to support claims that air conditioning plays a role in the spread of Covid-19. In early April, the CDC published a scientific paper associating the spread of Covid-19 with air conditioning in a restaurant in Guangzhou, China. In July, another short study found that 10 diners who fell ill were all sitting on the same side of the hotel. The study says that although the tables were spaced three feet apart, the diners were somehow infected, indicating that the virus probably wasn’t passed via larger droplets as they normally would. Rather, the study points out, someone in the hotel was probably infected by the virus and the tiny droplets (aerosols) were likely spread by the strong airflow from the wall-mounted air conditioner – infecting three families. The news of these findings spread like a bushfire, raising concerns about breathing in contaminated air in our own homes.

Experts Opinions

According to Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert from Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee, “So-called airborne transmission by some sort of air conditioning unit really has been reported only once and I think is likely to be a very odd event.” He goes on to point out how people have been going to liquor stores, grocery stores, pharmacies, and other venues for some time now, and none of them have reported getting infected. In the U.S., there have been no single reports of infections related to using air conditioning. Dr. Amesh Adalja, FIDSA, an expert in infectious diseases, pandemic preparedness, and biosecurity at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security echoes Dr. Schaffner’s sentiments, saying that although this is an interesting study, it is not representative of what happens in everyday situations with the virus. He adds, “So far, the epidemiology really supports droplet spread and those droplets fall to the ground within 6 feet.” With restaurants reopening, most of them have already implemented stringent health and safety measures to curb the spread of the virus. Some of these measures include disinfecting surfaces regularly, washing hands thoroughly, wearing masks within the hotel premises, and fogging rooms whenever a guest leaves.

What Industry Experts Think

Due to the raising air conditioning concerns, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) formed a task force, chaired by William P. Bahnfleth, Ph.D., PE, a professor at the Pennsylvania State University. The task force will look at the data from various studies and analyze them to come up with a conclusion into the role of air conditioning in the spread of Covid-19. One analysis of the restaurant study found that there was no outdoor air supply in the hotel, and the window fans were not working. The analysis concluded that aerosol transmission of SARS-CoV-2 was due to poor ventilation in the restaurant, and that may explain the spread of Covid-19.

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Image: Shutterstock

Recommendations for a Safer Indoor Air

According to industry experts, a well-functioning air conditioner in a room will actively provide the appropriate amount of ventilation. People are encouraged to use a high-efficiency HEPA filtration system to trap particulate matter and lower the concentration of SARS-CoV2 in the air. Investing in a good air cleaner for your home or office is highly recommended, but be sure to do proper research before buying one. Another way to minimize the risk of infections indoors is to allow outside air into the rooms. However, this may not always be a viable option, especially when you are trying to heat or cool a room as this could cost way too much money. We recommend that you follow the CDC and WHO guidelines regarding hygiene, physical distancing, avoid touching your face, and use masks whenever you are out in the public. The concerns over recirculated air from ACs haven’t been proven yet, but you can limit the risk of infection by embedding ultraviolet lights in the ductwork or near air registers to kill the virus.

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