The Truth About Air Cleaners

Particular air cleaners may be poor at improving air quality as well as emitting harmful ozone.

| August/September 2005

Some indoor air cleaners are ineffective, and some emit too much ozone — a gas that can damage the lungs — a Consumers Union study found.

The devices, also known as ionizing air cleaners or ionizers, work by electrically charging airborne particles and trapping them on oppositely charged metal plates. Ozone, a supercharged form of oxygen, is a byproduct of this process. In 2004, two studies linked high ozone exposure in cities to increases in premature deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular causes.

The new study, published in the May 2005 issue of Consumer Reports, gave failing grades to the Ionic Breeze, made by Sharper Image, and four other devices “for poor performance and some with relatively high ozone.” The products earned poor ratings from Consumers Union for removing dust, smoke and pollen from the air. The magazine also reported that some university studies were funded by the manufacturer. “If you own one of the five poor performing ionizers, try returning it for a refund,” Consumer Reports says.

Not all ionizing air cleaner models produce significant amounts of ozone. The magazine gave high marks to the Friedrich C-90A and Whirlpool 45030.

Consumer Reports and its nonprofit publisher, Consumers Union, have been testing the effectiveness of indoor air cleaners since 1992. Sharper Image sued Consumers Union for libel in 2003, but in 2004, a federal judge dismissed Sharper Image’s suit. The judge ruled that there was no reasonable probability that Consumers Union’s findings were false and that Sharper Image’s studies provided no basis for challenging the findings.

Consumers Union recommends that the Consumer Product Safety Commission set indoor ozone limits for all air cleaners and mandate performance tests and labels disclosing the results. The union also advises that the Federal Trade Commission take a closer look at advertisements for these devices to determine whether they include deceptive claims. Consumer Reports will issue a full report later this year.

Keep the Air Fresh

The Environmental Protection Agency and the American Lung Association recommend several low- or no-cost indoor air cleaning methods:

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