COVID-19 products in metro Atlanta schools: What’s sound science?

Marietta City Schools purchased foggers to expel a mist of disinfectant into the air as part of its response to the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Marietta City Schools
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Marietta City Schools purchased foggers to expel a mist of disinfectant into the air as part of its response to the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Marietta City Schools

Metro Atlanta school districts are being flooded with pitches for expensive products that claim to keep the coronavirus at bay.

UV lighting devices. Fogging machines. Hand-rinsing sinks.

With taxpayer dollars on the line, districts eager to ensure their schools are COVID-19 safe must determine which products are based on sound science and which ones don’t live up to the hype.

“We wanted to make sure we were not buying into gimmicks and things that were being sold by someone just seeking to make money off the pandemic,” said Chuck Gardner, chief operations officer for Marietta City Schools.

30e Scientific's aqueous ozone hand-rinsing station has been installed in at least three Cobb County elementary schools. The stations, which cost $14,361 apiece, use ozone to remove germs from a person's hands. Credit: Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Caption
30e Scientific's aqueous ozone hand-rinsing station has been installed in at least three Cobb County elementary schools. The stations, which cost $14,361 apiece, use ozone to remove germs from a person's hands. Credit: Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

The Cobb County School District is facing public scrutiny after paying ProTek Life nearly $800,000 to install UV sanitizing lights reportedly designed to kill harmful microbes on surfaces. The district halted the project after the lights malfunctioned and is now “in discussion with ProTek” to remove them, a spokeswoman said.

But the district is moving ahead with a plan to install hand-rising machines in schools, which cost $14,361 apiece, according to procurement documents. Board of Education members voted in November voted to spend up to $12 million to install the machines as well as the UV sanitizing lights in its 67 elementary schools.

The hand-rising machines, developed by 30e Scientific, calls for users to place their hands under a stream of water infused with ozone for about seven seconds to remove germs and dry their hands with paper towels.

ExploreCobb parents question schools spending $12M on UV lights, hand-rinsing machines

Dr. Bob Lubitz, chief medical officer with 30e Scientific, made numerous statements to the school board recently about the science behind the product. Aqueous ozone has been shown to kill a number of bacteria, fungi and viruses, including the H1N1 swine flu virus and the norovirus, he said.

But the product doesn’t kill the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, though it kills a common human coronavirus, according to his presentation to school board members. That surprised Cobb parent Gelisa Longmire, a member of a grassroots organization critical of the district’s spending choices during the pandemic.

“That’s a huge amount of money on something that’s not been proven,” Longmire said of the hand-rinsing stations.

ExploreAfter malfunction, Cobb to remove UV lights from schools

Board member Jaha Howard, who voted against the $12 million expenditure, said the “Iggy” hand-rinsing machines were not tested in an educational setting, so the district has no data to show how safe and effective they are in a school environment.

“I’ll say that we do a lot of things well, but in this instance, I think we missed the mark,” he said. “This is not the place to figure what works and doesn’t work. We need proven, tried and true technology if we are going to spend that kind of money.”

30e Scientific's aqueous ozone hand-rinsing station has been installed in at least three Cobb County elementary schools. The stations, which cost $14,361 apiece, use ozone to remove germs from a person's hands. Credit: Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Caption
30e Scientific's aqueous ozone hand-rinsing station has been installed in at least three Cobb County elementary schools. The stations, which cost $14,361 apiece, use ozone to remove germs from a person's hands. Credit: Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Evaluating the science

Marietta City Schools has received dozens of pitches from companies stating their products can kill the virus that causes COVID-19. One company wanted the district to install UV technology on its HVAC system, and said it would help clean the air before it’s dispersed.

Gardner said it would have been too expensive to maintain. The district is fighting COVID-19 with array of products in addition other measures, such as face masks, social distancing and installing desk shields, he said.

For instance, it uses foggers to expel a mist of disinfectant into the air. It also purchased 67 clean air needlepoint bipolar ionization units to install on buses used to transport students for $78,565, Gardner said. In addition, the district spent $255,970 to install the ionization technology on HVAC units in schools and buildings that weren’t previously retrofitted with the devices.

“I don’t believe any of these are a silver bullet,” he said. “We tried to layer our approach to create the safest environment possible for staff and students.”

Marietta City Schools in December used $78,565 in CARES Act funding to purchase 67 needlepoint bipolar ionization units to install on buses used to transport students. It also installed the same technology on HVAC units in schools and buildings that weren’t previously retrofitted with the devices. That project cost $255,970, the district said. Credit: Marietta City Schools
Caption
Marietta City Schools in December used $78,565 in CARES Act funding to purchase 67 needlepoint bipolar ionization units to install on buses used to transport students. It also installed the same technology on HVAC units in schools and buildings that weren’t previously retrofitted with the devices. That project cost $255,970, the district said. Credit: Marietta City Schools

Delphine Farmer, an associate chemistry professor at Colorado State University, said companies peddling products often pay independent consulting firms to conduct lab tests in “unrealistic conditions” to show their technology can kill the novel coronavirus.

For example, Farmer said companies marketing products like bipolar ionization technology study their effectiveness in small boxes loaded up with various microbes, including the coronavirus. While the results may show the products work, the data is not reliable because the products are used in realistic environments, she said.

“It’s enough to raise concerns and from my perspective, these companies need to show that their products are safe,” she said.

M.G. Finn, a professor of biochemistry at Georgia Tech, said ozone is also used in large-scale food processing operations to disinfect items and in machines that clean sleep apnea devices.

Finn said schools need to determine if any technology they are buying is just as effective in reducing COVID-19 transmission as handwashing with soap and water, getting vaccines, maintaining social distancing and wearing masks.

He said some products on the market “could help people feel more secure, but could give people a false sense of security.”

Fayette County schools in August installed 75 thermal imaging cameras at its schools to detect when people have elevated body temperatures. The district purchased the cameras, which are integrated in the district’s security system, from Hikavision for $525,000. Pictured here is a camera reading the temperature of School Superintendent Jonathan Patterson in the lobby of Peeples Elementary School. Credit: Fayette County schools
Caption
Fayette County schools in August installed 75 thermal imaging cameras at its schools to detect when people have elevated body temperatures. The district purchased the cameras, which are integrated in the district’s security system, from Hikavision for $525,000. Pictured here is a camera reading the temperature of School Superintendent Jonathan Patterson in the lobby of Peeples Elementary School. Credit: Fayette County schools

Credit: Fayette County schools

Credit: Fayette County schools

As the school year began in August, Fayette County Public Schools installed 75 thermal imaging cameras, which are said to detect when people have elevated body temperatures. The cameras, which are integrated with the district’s security system, were purchased for $525,000 from Hikvision.

Mike Sanders, assistant superintendent of operations, said in a statement that the cameras have allowed district nurses to stop students, staff and visitors who have elevated body temperatures from entering school buildings.

“Of course we follow that up with a manual check by our nurses prior to sending them home,” he said.

School districts’ COVID-19 products

Clayton County School District: Portable hand washing stations from Love Beyond Walls, a nonprofit organization that helps connect less fortunate people with community resources.

Cobb County School District: Hand-rinsing machines infused with aqueous ozone by 30e Scientific; UV sanitizing lights from ProTek Life. The district is in the process of removing the UV lights after they malfunctioned at an elementary school.

Fayette County Public Schools: Thermal imaging cameras to detect when people have elevated body temperatures.

Marietta City Schools: Foggers to expel a mist of disinfectant into the air; installed clean air needlepoint bipolar ionization units on HVAC units on buses and in buildings.