Dear Omar

Not All Germ-Killing Gadgets Kill the Coronavirus

I saw the light, but I can’t tell if it’s keeping me safe

Illustration source: PhoneSoap

Welcome to Dear Omar, a weekly Debugger column from tech expert Omar L. Gallaga answering all the gadget and technology questions you were afraid to ask.

It’s been almost a year since we became obsessed with germs, with viruses, with our filthy hand-washing habits, suddenly unacceptable when Covid-19 came knocking.

I wonder sometimes if we’ll forget that helpless feeling we had circa April–May 2020, when so much early uncertainty about the workings of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19, led to extreme changes in behavior. We scrubbed saltine boxes that we brought home from the grocery store and sprayed every delivered package with sanitizer, afraid that every new foreign object introduced to our home environment was trying to kill us.

At the time, we were all wishing for some kind of magic wand that could kill the coronavirus, but we’ve since learned that it’s not so much about zapping the virus as it is about good hygiene practices, distancing, and limiting contact with other people, not contaminated pizza boxes and tainted countertops.

Sanitizing lamp. Photo: OttLite Wellness Series

Nevertheless, many of us still wonder if there’s a good case to be made for products that use light to kill germs and viruses. PhoneSoap, for instance, had the right product for the right zeitgeist moment with its gadgets that use UV light to eliminate these threats. Most of PhoneSoap’s products look like small safes for your valuables or stylish coffins for your smartphones, complete with charging.

I bought into the hype myself, purchasing a similar model from Tzumi called the Ion UV Sanitizer for my mom as a Christmas gift.

This was bolstered by some reporting I did as hospitals in Texas were finding new ways to deal with SARS-CoV-2. In the case of some hospitals, including Midland Health, UV-light rooms were set up to disinfect personal protective equipment (PPE) so health care workers could reuse masks and other gear.

One of the most important things you need to know with regard to these UV-light products is that they are not meant to be aimed at people or pets. The FDA and others have warned that UV light (or UVC, as it’s sometimes called) can damage human skin and may be linked to cataracts and skin cancer. That’s why many of these UV-light sanitizers close up like vaults before the light turns on—they’re trying to protect the user.

That hasn’t stopped others from touting the benefits of similar technologies like far-UVC light, which is purported to kill airborne viruses like SARS-CoV-2 while being safer for human exposure than regular UVC. Whether that means we’ll be seeing far-UVC lighting arrays installed in places where the coronavirus might be a bigger danger than the risk of light exposure remains to be seen.

One thing that surprised me, though, as I was learning about UV-lighting products is that there is a whole market of similar products that don’t use UV at all. OttLite, one company that makes such sanitizing products, sent me a small desktop lamp to try out that switches between three light modes: ClearSun LED, which simulates sunlight; sanitizing mode, which displays a very blue light that’s said to be safe for skin and eyes; and a mode that combines the two.

I spent a few hours going around my house in sanitizing mode, waving the lamp over my kitchen counters, my nightstands, the bathroom sinks, anywhere I thought the coronavirus could strike (even though I don’t really have many house visitors, and no one in my family has tested positive).

Satisfied that I had done all I could do to protect my family against the virus until we’re all vaccinated, I went back to reading some of the materials that came with the attractive lamp. That’s when I saw it: Although the OttLite may kill up to 99% of bacteria, mold, and fungi with its SpectraClean technology, it’s not a coronavirus killer.

In an FAQ available through Hubbell Lighting, the company says of its SpectraClean technology, “SpectraClean is not known to affect common viruses that can lead to Covid-19, flu, or the common cold.”

But it’s a nice-looking lamp! It has a big, bright LED display; it charges your phone with a USB port; and the rubbery lamp head adjusts to many useful angles.

However, through the entire process of procuring the lamp for review, from opening the box to actually using the lamp in my house, I somehow missed the Covid caveat, and I’m someone who deals with tech products as a career choice. It wouldn’t surprise me if customers searching for “sanitizing UV” or “clean light sanitizers” wouldn’t come upon a product like this and assume it kills viruses as well as bacteria and mold.

This is all to say that while UV lighting is pretty remarkable in its ability to destroy SARS-CoV-2, and that in general we should all continue to clean and disinfect our environments when we can, there’s a lot of information to keep in mind. And shoppers looking to keep their smartphones, refrigerators, or doorknobs free from germs and viruses may need a little more guidance in the marketplace on how these devices work and what dangers, if any, the gadgets may pose.

Light sanitizers are the kind of lightbulb-over-the-head innovation that seem to make total sense, but nobody expects they’ll replace the commonsense Covid-19 precautions we should be taking, at least not anytime soon.

Tech culture writer and podcaster, now freelancing in Texas. Bylines: Washington Post, WSJ, CNN, NPR, Texas Monthly. Here for all your wordy needs.

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