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Are There Dangerous Viruses in the Air You Breathe?

If you could see there were COVID or flu viruses in the air at your local supermarket, what would you do? New technology can do exactly that!

If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything, it is that air quality matters! Despite the politicization of this disease, most people would prefer not to catch it if they could avoid it. Ditto for influenza, RSV or most other respiratory viruses. Seriously, who would want to feel terrible for days, weeks or longer? Ask anyone who developed long COVID if they would like to turn back the clock to before COVID. I guarantee you, no one wants to suffer for months or years with debilitating fatigue, shortness of breath, brain fog or any of the dozens of other symptoms that can accompany this condition. What if you could prevent many respiratory infections by checking for viruses in the air you breathe?

Are There Viruses in the Air?

Scientists at Washington University in St. Louis have developed an inexpensive monitor that can detect SARS-CoV-2 in the air of a room within about five minutes (Nature Communications, July 10, 2023). This prototype takes advantage of improved aerosol sampling technology as well as ultrasensitive biosensing techniques.

The researchers conclude:

“Our pAQ [pathogen Air Quality] monitor is suited for point-of-need surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 variants in indoor environments and can be adapted for multiplexed detection of other respiratory pathogens of interest. Widespread adoption of such technology could assist public health officials with implementing rapid disease control measures.”

What Other Viruses in the Air Could Be Detected?

The developers of this technology suggest that their instruments could easily be adjusted to detect other types of viruses such as influenza, rhinoviruses (colds) or respiratory syncytial virus. Neurologist Dr. John Cirrito is a professor of neurology at Washington University School of Medicine.

He points out:

“There is nothing at the moment that tells us how safe a room is. If you are in a room with 100 people, you don’t want to find out five days later whether you could be sick or not. The idea with this device is that you can know essentially in real time, or every 5 minutes, if there is a live virus in the air.”

He also says the monitor could be used to detect staph or strep infections in hospitals. These create all kinds of mischief in clinics and hospitals.

I knew a wonderful woman who had knee replacement surgery. She did great…for several days. Then a C. diff infection created havoc and eventually killed her. It would be wonderful if such a monitor could make sure that there were no infectious particles in recovery rooms!

We would love to see such monitors in hospitals, pharmacies, banks, supermarkets, schools and anywhere else people gather. If frequent air sampling results were posted prominently, say on a large electronic screen, you would know if it was safe to enter or if you would need to wear a mask for your protection.

Masks to Prevent Infections from Viruses in the Air:

We have heard from hundreds of visitors to this website that masks don’t work. Really? Would you be willing to undergo surgery if the doctors and nurses were not wearing masks? Of course not!

Here is what the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology has to say (Feb. 17, 2023):

“COVID-19 and other respiratory infectious diseases are primarily spread through respiratory droplets in the air that are released when a person talks, coughs, or sneezes. When worn consistently and effectively, face masks and respirators are helpful in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases. They act as a barrier to prevent inhalation of infectious respiratory droplets and can keep infectious particles from spreading into the air from infected people.”

Why Don’t Studies Show That Masks Work?

Research has produced conflicting results. For the anti-maskers, this is proof that masks are a waste of time. But here’s the problem. If you have watched people wearing masks in any public place you know that:

1) Not all masks are created equal. Most masks are not very effective because they are not N-95s. They may be fabric or surgical masks that have elastic behind the ears. These do not filter air effectively.
2) Most masks do not fit well. There are gaps around the nose, cheeks and chin. If you wear glasses and they fog up when you wear a mask, air is escaping. That is proof that the mask does not fit correctly.
3) Many people do not wear masks correctly. Admit it, you have seen a lot of people wearing their masks as chin straps. The other mistake is to push the mask below the nose. The mask becomes totally ineffective in such situations.

I could go on, but trying to test the value of masks when there is such variability in quality, fit and technique makes results questionable at best. For all the doubters, would you want to sit next to someone who has tuberculosis without a mask?

Tuberculosis: Still A Deadly Airborne Infectious Disease!

TB is contagious, though it is not as easily transmitted as the flu or COVID. According to a guy I admire, John Green, 30,000 people died of TB last week. Learn more about TB and a drug to cure it at this link. It’s worth your time, I promise!

Tuberculosis is hard to treat. People have to take antibiotics for 6 to 12 months. Perhaps you have forgotten the old name for this disease: White Death!

Who Died From TB?

Here is a partial list from an article in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, Sept. 1, 1999:

  • Robert Louis Stevenson
  • George Orwell
  • D. H. Lawrence
  • Chopin
  • Keats
  • Shelley

At the end of the 19th century, three fourths of the prisoners in Massachusetts died from tuberculosis.

What About Your Immune System vs. Viruses in the Air?

Many visitors to this website tout the value of the immune system for fighting off disease. No one will argue with good immune health. But tuberculosis is still here! And so is whooping cough (pertussis), MRSA (methicillin-resistant staph) and norovirus.

No matter how good your immune system may be, norovirus will make you wish you could have avoided it. See this article to find out how easily it is transmitted and how you will feel if you catch it.

Final Words:

A fast, accurate, air-testing system could be a game changer when it comes to airborne infectious agents. If public places had to monitor the quality of their air and make the results visible, people could take appropriate action.

Now, do I really think hospitals, supermarkets, pharmacies or big box stores will voluntarily reveal if there are viruses in the air? Of course not.

They know that if their big electronic sign revealed high concentrations of influenza virus circulating in the building, you would probably turn around and go somewhere else. But what if all such establishments had to test and reveal the quality of the air in building? They would have to make sure the air was “clean” if they wanted your business.

If you knew that there were high levels of influenza virus circulating in your local grocery store, you might opt for a supermarket with no flu. If you knew that levels of cold viruses were moderate at your pharmacy, you might be more likely to wear an N-95 mask that fits snugly around your mouth and nose when you pick up a prescription.

The bottom line is that this new technology is promising. It will likely take time to develop commercial air quality devices that are affordable. We wish the researchers good luck in commercializing their proof-of-concept pAQ [pathogen Air Quality] monitors! And who knows, maybe someday public health authorities will have the power to require such monitors in hospitals, doctors’ offices, pharmacies and other vulnerable spaces. That would be a huge incentive to reduce viruses in the air you breathe.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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