Flu Season: All You Need to Know in a Nutshell

It’s now September, which means one of the Emirates’ flu seasons is right around the corner. That’s right folks, that time of year where a single sneeze causes panic. Parents worry about their kids. Managers are frustrated with employee absence. Hospitals receive more and more patients. We lie in bed all feverish, blow our noses for the 177th time, and painfully reach out for our cup of tea. We wonder: how could a species that found cures to so many illnesses still have trouble with something so silly as a common cold?

Why Are Viruses Dangerous?

Here’s a simple answer: viruses are constantly mutating, which means that the smallest change in their genetic makeup renders last year’s vaccine completely useless. Besides that, all it takes is a single viron to find its way into your body, latch onto a cell, and replicate.

We get a cold in one of two ways: surface contact or airborne infection. Contact infection is relatively easy to mitigate; using hand gel regularly to sterilize your hands is one option. But what can we do to protect ourselves against airborne viruses? We certainly can’t wear masks all day.

Airborne viruses are difficult to deal with for two simple reasons: they are tiny, and they are very mobile. For example, the contaminants from a single sneeze can remain suspended in the air for as long as 45 minutes. This, along with the fact that air conditioning constantly recirculates the air, gives viruses plenty of time to spread in a room. Given enough time, a person sneezing in the opposite end of a room can potentially infect every one of its occupants. What makes the situation even more troublesome is that viruses can attach themselves to dust and water droplets already present in the air, providing them with yet another means of transportation.

Is There a Solution?

So… how are we addressing the issue? Some air conditioning units incorporate HEPA filters, but even the most efficient, medical-grade filters can only trap matter and bacteria as small as 0.3 microns. That is, nearly all viruses will pass through unobstructed.

There is good news though. Even though viruses can’t be caught with existing filters, they can be neutralized. One of the most promising neutralization methods involves a principle called photocatalytic oxidation (PCO). PCO occurs naturally, but has found use in human applications since the late 20th century. NASA had a problem: fruits and vegetables naturally produce ethylene throughout their life cycle, and its build-up in spacecraft could pose major issues to astronauts. This would clearly be an obstacle for future journeys.

Along came PCO. The basic idea involves a substance called a catalyst (a chemical reaction booster) and ultraviolet light. When UV light hits a catalyst like titanium dioxide (TiO2), millions of hydroxyl ions (OH) are generated. Hydroxyl is one of the strongest naturally-occurring oxidizing agents known to science. What that means is that it can decompose virtually any organic matter that it comes into contact with. That’s right, viruses, bacteria, mold spores, volatile organic compounds such as formaldehyde are not so invincible after all.

You might be wondering: If hydroxyl is so dangerous to organic matter, wouldn’t it be dangerous for me? No – since free hydroxyl radicals only last a fraction of a second (and a minuscule fraction at that). A well-built device generating hydroxyl is both safe and crucial for ridding indoor air of all the nasty stuff floating about.

Who You Can Talk To

Fortunately for UAE residents, this technology is no longer exclusive to NASA. Radic8 has developed a range of products aimed at tackling contaminants that other devices simply can’t protect against. Nano Level is Radic8’s exclusive partner in the UAE.

Find out more at www.nano-level.com/products/.

Indoor Air Quality 101

So you live and work in the UAE. Congratulations. I do too. You’re also probably making good money. Your friends may envy you. Or not. While we tend to work hard and hit our targets or KPIs at work, we always tend to avoid the ‘how long we’re staying in this country’ forecast. Since we’re here, let’s talk about the air we breathe. Why? Because unfortunately, we spend at least six months a year going from inside to inside and inhale around 11,000 liters of air daily.

Fine, so if you have an office job, you spend an average of 8 hours a day in that office, 5 days a week, minus vacation days, that’s on average around 1,900 hours a year, breathing office air – that’s around 22% of your adult life! Ok ok, let’s go home now, I will assume you go out every day and spend only 10 hours a day at home, minus vacation days, that’s around 3,400 hours, or around 39% of your adult life! If you think breathing “bad” air at home or in the office won’t affect your long-term well-being, think again.

Breaking news, the air we breathe indoors is polluted – two to five times more so than outdoor air, as per the EPA of the USA – that is in a country where people don’t rely on conditioned air for at least eight months a year.

Let’s talk a bit about air conditioning. Air gets recirculated, hundreds of times, even thousands of times. Now comes ventilation, i.e. introducing some fresh air from the outside. If you live in an apartment, or when you’re in the office, you’re basically under the mercy of the developer/owner/manager of the building. To minimize the bills, they minimize fresh air – because it costs double to cool outside air than to recirculate the relatively cold inside air (FYI fresh air systems’ bills are always part of common area expenses). Such measures are often called “going green” – I call it “going grey” or “sick building syndrome”.

sick building syndrome:

a condition affecting office workers, typically marked by headaches and respiratory problems, attributed to unhealthy or stressful factors in the working environment such as poor ventilation.

You live in a villa? Awesome, you have your own AC and ventilation system, and I’m pretty sure you get reminded of that every time you receive your electricity bill. For some odd reason, most of the fresh air intakes have been taped shut by maintenance people – sometimes because tenants nag about high humidity inside, other times because they nag about the high electricity bill; whatever the reason, Mr. Maintenance Guy has a solution. If that’s the case, you technically live in an apartment – from a ventilation point of view – and you’re exposed to ‘sick villa syndrome’. If you’re one of the lucky ones who still get fresh air, this thing is most probably introducing a lot of dust, humidity and traffic pollution – unless you live in a villa compound in the middle of the desert, in which case, just a whole lot of dust.

So, what are these pesky indoor pollutants?

  

Three types; inert, like dust and smoke, oh and these are great carriers of viruses and bacteria, which brings me to the second type: biological. Yes, you guessed it – viruses, bacteria and all the other living stuff and third, the chemicals; mainly volatile organic compounds and traffic pollution – the latter especially if you’re in a busy area.

Inert particles are there. You can’t escape them, you can only filter them out – all types of smoke, particulate matter, respirable dust and so on…

Chemicals either off-gas from household items and furniture (that nice “new furniture smell” is actually a nice blend of volatile organic compounds) or are introduced from outside traffic pollution and nearby industrial processes. Since they’re gases, their particles are tiny and subsequently near impossible to filter.

Biological pollutants such as viruses, bacteria, mold spores, and so on… some can be filtered and some, like viruses, are smaller than what the most advanced HEPA filters can catch. 

Biological contaminants such as bacteria and mold spores can be filtered with medical-grade HEPA filters. Viruses, however, are too small to fall for the same trap. They literally fall through the cracks and get away with bringing us colds, flus, and all kinds of nasty stuff.

Recent studies have shown that 1 out of 6 Dubai residents suffers from asthma, especially school-aged kids. Contrary to popular belief, asthma is not simply genetic, it’s actually developed as a result of long-term exposure to indoor air pollutants. Knowing what’s in the air early on and preventing the buildup of pollutants can actually save lives.

Air pollution kills more than 2.4 million people globally due to heart diseases and latest studies in the UAE show that 30% of all deaths here are due to cardiovascular diseases …  hmm.