BEWARE IAQ MIRACLE CURES
Last August, I was approached by a guy who claimed to have an amazing product that used hydrogen peroxide to oxidize odors and particles in the air. It worked great, he insisted, and would solve almost every indoor air quality problem. After being endorsed by both the U.S. Army and Homeland Security, he wanted to use this equipment to clean the air inside schools. He reached out to have me test the air inside the schools before they put in the equipment, then come back and test again to show how much of an improvement there was.
Working with a company that had been endorsed by the army and Homeland Security sounded like a great opportunity to get a lot of business, but I’ve been in the field of IAQ for a long time. When I met with this guy again in late December, along with the lead salesman and the guy who supposedly invented the product, I went into the meeting with my antenna up and a lot of questions that needed answers. It didn’t take long for the salesman to say things that really tripped my triggers.
He claimed the product employed “advanced oxidation technology using ionized hydroperoxide” and that it used “non-nano titanium dioxide and several transitional elements to produce superoxide ions.” This all sounded great, but I know there’s no such thing as hydroperoxide or superoxide ions. The pseudoscience didn’t end with the marketing lingo — there was actual pseudoscience in store.
When I pressed about the product being endorsed by Homeland Security, I learned the salesman was a former Baptist minister who worked with a church in south Texas that housed people who had crossed the border and were waiting to be told where to go next. He had the church install the equipment in their buildings and offered anecdotal evidence, insisting everyone in the buildings felt great. Claiming to be endorsed by Homeland Security was a stretch, to put it nicely. I couldn’t get a straight answer on how they were endorsed by the U.S. Army.
The worst came when I finally spoke with the guy who claimed to have invented the product. I quickly realized he couldn’t answer many of my specific questions, like how hydrogen peroxide would interact with formaldehyde already in the air. He claimed the product had been tested by Kansas State University and the University of Cincinnati. When I asked for the research papers, he could only give me the name of the doctors who supposedly did the research.
Most of what I learned about this “amazing” product came later when I did a little research of my own. I found the doctor from Kansas State. They had written a paper on a similar piece of technology, but that research was on how it could handle a variety of contaminants on stainless steel kitchen surfaces . Likewise, the doctor from the University of Cincinnati had written research papers on IAQ in food-service areas but offered no comment on this tech they were selling.
After the meeting, I gathered up every scrap of reasonable data they’d given me — which wasn’t much — and sent it to my friend Dr. Richard Shaughnessy at the University of Tulsa. Dr. Shaughnessy is one of the world’s top IAQ researchers. I asked him if he’d ever seen any research on using hydrogen peroxide in the air. He told me that not only had he never seen any such research, but the stuff I sent over to him about the project also didn’t make any scientific sense.
This isn’t the first time someone pitched a product or piece of equipment that would supposedly solve all our IAQ problems forever. Every four or five years, another miracle cure-all hits the market. Most of the time, the people selling this product don’t have malicious intent. (Yes, the “inventor” was pretty shady, but the salesman and the guy who contacted me both seemed to honestly believe in the product.) They’re full of blue skies and goodwill. But they always overlook the fact that personal stories don’t make up for the lack of real science. Just because a piece of equipment shows promise in a food prep area dealing with various contaminants does not mean it will be able to solve every IAQ problem under the sun.
These situations never fail to frustrate the living daylights out of me. The thing that scared me the most happened at the beginning of our meeting. These guys claimed they had just come from a meeting with a big school district here in Texas, and that the district had agreed to put this equipment in all of their school buildings. I don’t know if this was just another overblown sales tactic, but I certainly hope Texas school districts aren’t exposing their students to equipment that hasn’t received some measure of peer-reviewed, scientific testing.
It’s not uncommon for people to be blinded by what sounds like a great offer, especially when they don’t know the right questions to ask. A property manager often won’t know what holes to look for if given the kind of marketing lingo these guys were throwing around. It’s not the property manager’s job to have those answers. This is why you need to have someone you can go to for a second opinion. Even I needed to reach out to Dr. Shaughnessy to get his opinion on the subject.
I can’t go around debunking every bad IAQ product on the market, but I can heavily scrutinize any that cross my path. And I can remind people that if something sounds too good to be true, it usually means you need to get a second opinion.