Can UV Light Fight the Spread of Influenza?
Safe for human exposure, far-UVC light may offer low-cost solution to eradicating airborne viruses in indoor public spaces
NEW YORK, NY (Feb. 9, 2018)—Continuous low doses of far ultraviolet C (far-UVC) light can kill airborne flu viruses without harming human tissues, according to a new study at the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC). The findings suggest that use of overhead far-UVC light in hospitals, doctors’ offices, schools, airports, airplanes, and other public spaces could provide a powerful check on seasonal influenza epidemics, as well as influenza pandemics.
The study was published online today in Scientific Reports.
Scientists have known for decades that broad-spectrum germicidal UV light, which has wavelengths between 200 and 400 nanometers (nm), is highly effective at killing bacteria and viruses by destroying the molecular bonds that hold their DNA together. This conventional UV light is routinely used to decontaminate surgical equipment.
“Unfortunately, conventional germicidal UV light is also a human health hazard and can lead to skin cancer and cataracts, which prevents its use in public spaces,” said study leader David J. Brenner, PhD, the Higgins Professor of Radiation Biophysics at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia.
Several years ago, Brenner and his colleagues hypothesized that a narrow spectrum of ultraviolet light called far-UVC could kill microbes without damaging healthy tissue. “Far-UVC light has a very limited range and cannot penetrate through the outer dead-cell layer of human skin or the tear layer in the eye, so it’s not a human health hazard. But because viruses and bacteria are much smaller than human cells, far-UVC light can reach their DNA and kill them,” said Brenner, who is also a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health.
Previously shown to kill MRSA
In their earlier studies, Brenner’s team demonstrated that far-UVC light was effective at killing MRSA (methicillin-resistant S. aureus) bacteria, a common cause of surgical wound infections but not harm human or mouse skin.
Influenza virus spreads from person to person mainly through fine liquid droplets, or aerosols, that become airborne when people with flu cough, sneeze, or talk. The new study was designed to test if far-UVC light could efficiently kill aerosolized influenza virus in the air, in a setting similar to a public space.
In the study, aerosolized H1N1 virus—a common strain of flu virus—was released into a test chamber and exposed to very low doses of 222 nm far-UVC light. A control group of aerosolized virus was not exposed to the UVC light. The far-UVC light efficiently inactivated the flu viruses, with about the same efficiency as conventional germicidal UV light.
“If our results are confirmed in other settings, it follows that the use of overhead low-level far-UVC light in public locations would be a safe and efficient method for limiting the transmission and spread of airborne-mediated microbial diseases, such as influenza and tuberculosis,” Brenner said.
At a price of less than $1,000 per lamp—a cost that would surely decrease if the lamps were mass produced—far-UVC lights are relatively inexpensive. “And unlike flu vaccines, far-UVC is likely to be effective against all airborne microbes, even newly emerging strains,” Brenner added.
About the study
The study is titled “Far-UVC light: A new tool to control the spread of airborne-mediated microbial diseases.” The other contributors are David Welch, Manuela Buonanno, Veljko Grilj, Igor Shuryak, Connor Crickmore, Alan Bigelow, Gerhard Randers-Pehrson, and Gary Johnson (all at CUIMC).
The study was supported by grants from the Shostack Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (1R41AI125006-01).
The authors declare that they have no financial or other conflicts of interest.
Columbia University Irving Medical Center provides international leadership in basic, preclinical, and clinical research; medical and health sciences education; and patient care. The medical center trains future leaders and includes the dedicated work of many physicians, scientists, public health professionals, dentists, and nurses at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Mailman School of Public Health, the College of Dental Medicine, the School of Nursing, the biomedical departments of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and allied research centers and institutions. Columbia University Irving Medical Center is home to the largest medical research enterprise in New York City and State and one of the largest faculty medical practices in the Northeast. For more information, visit cumc.columbia.edu or columbiadoctors.org.