OGDENSBURG — When phones ring at Queenaire Technologies off Route 37, callers ask one thing of the ozone-generator production company: Does this kill coronavirus?
Currently, the short answer must be “no,” but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
“You can believe something, but if you haven’t proven it, you shouldn’t be saying it,” Queenaire owner and former Lisbon Town Councilwoman Susan M. Duffy said.
A play on “clean air” and Ms. Duffy’s position as the sole queen among her nine brothers, Queenaire was established in 2001, now headquartered at a 6,600-square-foot manufacturing facility along the St. Lawrence River overlooking Galop Island.
With its launch in St. Lawrence County and doing business as The Ozone Experts, the company evolved to incorporate three brand lines — Newaire, Rainbowair and Queenaire — comprised of about 20 different types of ozone generators, hydroxyl generators or wall units traditionally sold to the hospitality industry as deodorizers and used in fire restoration and crime scene cleanup.
Ozone exists in Earth’s upper atmosphere and at ground level as a gas composed of three oxygen atoms, O3. Stratospheric ozone molecules are constantly being broken and reformed, with natural annual cycles tracked by agencies around the world.
The ozone layer in Earth’s stratosphere absorbs harmful ultraviolet light from the sun, and has been observed over several decades to have diminished to thin patches as a result of ozone-depleting substances, mostly containing chlorine and bromine.
Ground-level ozone is generally an air pollutant that in high enough levels irritates the lungs, eyes and nose, and primarily contributes to smog, though the molecule can be harnessed for lab and practical uses.
For instance, when dissolved in water, ozone is used as a disinfectant and deodorizer in water treatment processes. Ozonation in water treatment has been used commercially for municipal drinking water, swimming pools and spas in the United Kingdom since the early 1900s and a few decades later in parts of the United States.
The use of ozone as a deodorizer in air has become more common, with wall plug-in units sold to hotels and hospitals, and ozone generators used to remove odors like cigarette smoke from carpeting and vehicles. Ozone cabinets or chambers have also been effective in deodorizing and disinfection.
But as a disinfectant in open air, ozone continues to cause tension between government agencies and businesses.
Ozone was granted Generally Recognized as Safe status, or GRAS status, by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2001 and the Department of Agriculture in 2002, but those designations only apply to ozone used in direct contact with food products, largely poultry and other meat products. American meat storage facilities used ozone to mitigate bacteria in meat storage lockers as early as the 1950s. Bottled water was also approved by the FDA in the 1970s to be treated with ozone.
General, open-air disinfection, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is less understood, and the agency warns consumers of ozone generators sold as “air cleaners.”
The FDA limits ozone output from indoor devices to 0.05 parts per million, and in the 1990s, two indoor ozone generators, the Alpine 150 and the Quantum Panda Plus, were scrutinized for not allowing users to measure ozone output or control output levels. The state of Minnesota in 1992 sued Alpine Air Products for making false claims about the safety of its ozone-generating products, which often exceeded the mandated 0.05 ppm threshold, and for failing to instruct users to run the products when people are not present.
Ozone generators for deodorizing, like the models designed, assembled and distributed by the Queenaire team, are typically used as a tabletop or bookshelf appliance that passes a spark between electrically charged metal plates, creating ozone gas. The gas is then dispersed into a space by a fan inside the unit. People and animals are not meant to be present in the space while the generator is running and for an equal or longer period of time after the dispersal is complete.
Queenaire, Ms. Duffy said, has not tested any of its products for use in coronavirus disinfection processes, but employees, headed by Director of Research and Development Richard J. Luscombe-Mills, are hoping to develop a formula for determining the most effective and non-harmful ozone concentrations and humidity levels to program ozone generators for virus disinfection.
Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology studied ozone disinfection of personal protective equipment this summer, testing influenza A and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, as surrogates for the novel coronavirus. The study has yet to be peer-reviewed, but preliminary findings suggest ozone chambers deactivate the studied viruses on Tyvek gowns, polycarbonate face shields, goggles and respirator masks without damaging the items.
Ms. Duffy and Mr. Luscombe-Mills said they are hopeful in-house evidence of coronavirus disinfection at Queenaire may propel the ozone technology forward.
Since the outset of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March, Queenaire’s internet sales have “increased dramatically,” Ms. Duffy said.
In a company message to buyers earlier this year, Ms. Duffy reminded consumers that Queenaire products have not been tested for novel coronavirus deactivation and urged users to vacate the spaces being treated by ozone generators.
“We’ll continue to sell responsibly to people who want to do deep cleaning, but at the same time, look at how we can formulate the correct levels of ozone against the virus,” she said. “Taking it to that next step, I think it’ll be the best solution.”