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Can Overhead Lighting (Safely) Clean Our Air?

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Air quality and sanitization have been at the top of people’s minds for the past 18 months. Keeping offices and public spaces clean has become a global endeavor, requiring millions of man-hours to keep up. Ultra Violet light has been a popular option to help kill bacteria and viruses in our indoor air, but because of the inherent danger, uses have been limited to disinfecting air in vents, or via robots that come in after humans have gone. New lighting technology capable of UV disinfection with people present is changing the lighting paradigm. 

One thing we know for sure is that Ultra Violet light is harmful. Whether from the sun or from tanning beds, UV rays can cause premature signs of aging, sun damage, eye problems, and weaken the immune system. The American Cancer Society claims solar radiation, UV-emitting tanning devices, and UV radiation in the form of UVA, UVB, and UVC light are carcinogenic to humans. That’s why using UV light devices to fight COVID-19 has given many pause. Still, when appropriately used, it’s proven to be one of the most effective forms of automated disinfection. The United States Food & Drug Administration has formally recognized UV light’s efficacy in fighting the spread of bacteria, germs, and viruses. Long relegated to air ducts, the intense need for better forms of airborne disinfection has fueled the development of new lighting technology capable of being used in the presence of people in overhead lights. 

Leviton

Leviton Lighting brand Viscor launched Visioneering’s LRTH-DFX luminaire featuring their UVA technology. The recessed overhead light uses UVA technology for continuous disinfection.  In lab tests, Leviton’s UVA light was able to reduce pathogens by 99.7 percent. Though UVC exposure to humans is a concern, the LRTH-DFX luminaire meets International Electrotechnical Commission photobiological safety standards for lamps and lamp systems and exposure rates are below the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists threshold limit values for human exposure to UV light. 

“With the continuous disinfection provided by LRTH-DFX, we hope to support cleaner spaces that will allow building occupants to focus more on the activities they are doing rather than the cleanliness of the spaces they are in,” Leviton executive vice president Pierre Legare said. 

Leviton is the first company to license the new disinfection lighting technology by GE Current. The lights work by delivering light in the 300 nm spectrum that excites certain molecules found inside microbes, causing reactions that result in oxidative cell damage to pathogens, rendering them inactive. While safe, limiting exposure is still encouraged. The lights are recommended to be used in high-traffic common areas where people don’t linger. Use in dwellings or at home is not recommended. Leviton is clear that UV products are meant to be used in conjunction with other protective measures and are not a substitute for manual cleaning. 

The technology seems promising but overcoming concerns may prove to be a challenge. If additional cleaning is still required, spending money upgrading lighting isn’t saving money or time. How the market will react to the technology remains to be seen. So far, use has been limited to case studies. While the technology has massive potential, it has yet to make serious inroads in the massive commercial lighting market. 

Legrand Indigo-Clean

Legrand’s Indigo-Clean LED technology has been establishing a track record. Using 405 nm LED visible light rather than UV light to kill viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens, Legrand’s technology doesn’t have the same dangers associated with its use. Legrand’s LED technology is scientifically proven to kill 94 percent of SARS-CoV-2 under a range of conditions. The technology is already being used by nearly two dozen healthcare systems. At Maury Regional Medical Center in Columbia, Tennessee Indigo-Clean was shown to reduce bacteria in the operating room by 85 percent, and the number of surgical site infections was reduced by 73 percent. 

“Other disinfecting technologies are currently available to hospitals and health systems, but are optimized for daily or on-demand applications,” said Cliff Yahnke, Ph.D., Kenall’s Director of Clinical Affairs for Indigo-Clean. “Hospital staff needs to be trained to operate the technology, increasing cost and creating potential compliance issues which can easily undermine their benefits. Indigo-Clean uses visible light to automatically, continuously, and safely disinfect the environment 24/7 without the need for additional training or staff.”

The technology behind the disinfecting LED lights was discovered in 2002 by researchers at Scotland’s University of Strathclyde. It was first installed in 2008 at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, a major teaching hospital in the U.K. Granted a US patent in 2014, the technology has been making its way to the United States. In medical settings, preventing even a single surgical site infection can save the facility over $25,000. 

Light Bulb Moment

Its clear overhead lights with the ability to disinfect have critical applications in health care settings with a clear return on investment. The math isn’t as clear in other types of commercial or public spaces. The devices produce far more lumens than your typical overhead light, using more energy. If they can help reduce the extra strain on HVAC systems then they could be a net positive but so far they still seem to require help from advanced air filtration and ample circulation. More information will be needed to understand how high-powered lights capable of disinfection impact energy consumption and efficiency. Dileniating a return on investment where prevention has no tangible financial benefit to the facility is tricky. Unlike hospitals, commercial properties don’t save money by preventing illness. There’s a public health benefit to adapting the technology in highly trafficked places but convincing property owners and managers to use their budget to upgrade to less efficient lights is a hard sell. 

Ultimately upgrades like overhead disinfecting lights may prove to be a fad driven by mitigating a pandemic many of the areas of the United States are moving past. As the country gets vaccinated and masks come off, much of what we once relied on to keep us safe is coming down. Social distancing stickers are being peeled off the floor, plexiglass is being removed, and air filters are being unplugged. Facility managers are wondering which mitigation measures to keep and which to eliminate. Retrofitting lighting systems could be a bright idea, but will have to prove itself more before we see it in a large amount of our commercial buildings.

Associate Editor
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