Parents tell Montclair district: We’re worried new air cleaners aren’t safe
By TALIA WIENER
Several parents are asking the Montclair school system not to use the needlepoint bipolar ionization systems it recently purchased as part of an effort to safeguard against coronavirus transmission — worried about byproducts they say could be harmful to children.
And schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds recently said the district will keep the machines off as it researches their safety further — but that the district has been assured by its engineering firm and the manufacturer the systems are safe. The systems were turned off ahead of the April 12 return to elementary schools for hybrid learning — the first time Montclair students have attended class in school buildings since the coronavirus pandemic began.
A complete transformation of the district’s aging ventilation systems was estimated to cost $26 million in a November 2020 assessment. But the district has since made several smaller or temporary adjustments meant to improve coronavirus safety.
As described by Dan Daniello of D&B Building Solutions, an HVAC company that worked with the district on its ventilation upgrades, the bipolar ionization system releases ions — positively or negatively charged particles — into the air, which then attach to other, potentially dangerous particles, like the novel coronavirus. That creates larger particles that are easier for mechanical air cleaners to filter out, he said at an April 19 school board meeting.
It’s an emerging technology, adopted by many school systems, hospitals and other facilities during the pandemic. But federal health and environmental authorities warn it’s also not a wholly proven technology, and can in some cases create harmful byproducts. A Rutgers University civil and environmental engineering professor told Montclair Local she has serious doubts about the technology; concerned parents have reached experts who told the district much the same.
The vendor that provided the systems, Charlotte-based Global Plasma Solutions, says bipolar ionization is safe. GPS itself was recommended to the district by engineering firm EI Associates in the November report, which said “to the best of our knowledge, this is the only [needlepoint bipolar ionization manufacturer] that has had third-party testing on the SARS-CoV-2 virus to date.” It said GPS’s system could also break down volatile organic compounds, kill mold sports and bacteria and eliminate odors.
GPS says its system does not create ozone (which can damage lungs and have other negative health impacts, according to the Environmental Protection Agency), or volatile organic compounds (which can have a range of health effects from eye and throat irritation to central nervous system damage when people are exposed over long periods of time).
“Recently, within the last couple months, there has been some banter about some reports,” Daniello, who presented materials from GPS at the April 19 meeting, said. “We do not make any VOCs.”
The EPA, in online coronavirus guidance, says “provided manufacturers have data to demonstrate efficacy,” they can market bipolar ionization systems to help remove viruses from the air. But the EPA warns bipolar ionization systems can generate ozone or other byproducts “unless specific precautions are taken in the product design and maintenance” — and recommends products be selected and used carefully. The CDC also warns facilities should “exercise caution and to do their homework” when considering emerging air disinfectant technology, and seek documented performance data from multiple third-party sources.
Daniello, at the board meeting, said Intertek Laboratories completed an independent test, published March 31, and found no VOC byproducts at levels above those that would be found normally in the air. GPS this month also published a response to criticisms and outside testing of its systems, arguing against many of the findings.
During the April 19 school board meeting, several concerned parents spoke about their opposition to the air systems, citing scientific papers, articles and letters from experts.
“Based on a growing number of expert opinions in the fields of chemistry, indoor air, children’s health, engineering and more, it is clear the bipolar ionization units installed in the classrooms are a health risk to our schools and children,” Montclair parent Melanie Robbins told the board.
Montclair parent Suzanne Aptman said the news of the new air systems initially came as relief — she had long been concerned about air ventilation in Montclair schools, worried about poor circulation in classrooms.
“At Edgemont [Montessori School], for example, the buses’ exhaust fumes would enter the rooms and just sit there,” said Aptman. “So, beyond the claim to deactivate COVID particles, hearing the promise to filter out the VOCs was a relief.”
But she and other parents began to do more research on the technology, finding accounts from experts who denounced bipolar ionization, citing a lack of regulation for products that use the technology, limited proof of efficacy, and tests that appeared to show evidence of dangerous byproducts including formaldehyde and other carcinogens.
“There is a marketplace that opened up in schools during COVID,” Robbins said at the meeting. “The tests that GPS mentioned are not independent as they claim. They are paid for by the company itself and the data and protocols are not in the public domain.”
Seeking more studies
Rutgers civil and environmental engineering professor Monica Mazurek told Montclair Local she opposes the bipolar ionization systems, and says definitive studies would need to be performed on specific equipment to determine its effectiveness in a classroom. The unvalidated technology and unmonitored conditions after installation do not prevent exposure and transmission of COVID-19, she said.
“Throwing money at a problem without understanding the problem is not a solution,” Mazurek, who is also the director and resident air quality expert at the Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation at Rutgers, said. “Where is the data? Where are the facts? Where are the monitoring data?”
Justin Klabin, another Montclair parent — as well as a consultant on green building and health issues through his company, Klabin Eco Development — wrote a letter to the district on Dec. 8 advising against the installation of the devices.
“Government agencies including the EPA now certify air cleaners as ‘ozone free’ if they achieve low levels of ozone during use in a test chamber,” wrote Klabin. “However, these agencies do not test for other by-products of emission that may have deleterious health effects, including products from ... the intended reaction in the air.”
Parents and families have continued to express their concern through emails, letters, and phone calls. During the April 19 school board meeting, Aptman mentioned a March article published in Building and Environment that found bipolar ionization systems can lead to an increase in certain VOCs.
In response to Montclair Local inquiries about parents’ concerns, GPS made the following statement: “Rigorous, modern testing at independent labs and measurements from a wide-range of real-world installations have continuously proven to create a healthy environment that can neutralize harmful pollutants without introducing elevated levels of ozone, carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or other harmful compounds.”
A group of concerned Montclair parents reached out to Mount Sinai doctor and Environmental Medicine and Public Health Professor Sarah Evans asking for her opinion on the systems. On Dec. 14, Evans wrote a letter to the district, opposing the systems.
“Our team of pediatricians, scientists, occupational medicine doctors and industrial hygienists have concerns about the safety and efficacy of emerging air cleaning,” she wrote. “We recommend against the introduction of these systems in the district.”
Aptman said she’s been in touch with Evans, and the doctor hasn’t yet received a response from the district.
At the board meeting — and at an earlier Board of School Estimate meeting — Ponds thanked those who spoke on the issue, and encouraged them to pass along their materials to the district.
“Factual data and information helps make strong decisions,” Ponds said.
Ponds also said he hoped GPS representatives were listening to the meeting and that they would take into consideration all the concerns brought by parents and families.
“They do understand what’s going on out there in the field,” he said.
Ponds declined to comment for this story.