Are Home Air Cleaners Worth the Money?

Consumer Reports Rates Popular Home Air Cleaners

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD
From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 6, 2005 - The product testing group Consumers Union says even the best home air cleaners may not be worth the money when it comes to improving your health.

In a report published in the October issue of its magazine, Consumer Reports, the group rated the effectiveness of the popular room air cleaners and whole-house air cleaning devices. Though a few performed well, many air cleaners tested, especially room models, scored fair or poor in at least one of the group's four cleaning tests for dust and smoke.

Some of the best selling tabletop models, including those marketed by Sharper Image and Oreck, were rated as "not recommended" by the testing group. Both models were "ionizing" air cleaners that use electrostatic precipitators to trap air pollutants.

Consumers Union Vice President and Technical Director Jeff Asher, PhD, says the cleaners that performed the worst either had no fan to move air through the device or had fans that were inadequate.

"If an electronic precipitator has a small fan or no fan at all, it is probably not a good bet for removing particulates from the air," he says.

The tabletop models that had strong fans were noisier than the other models, but they also tended to work better, Asher says.

Continuing Battle

In an October 2003 report, Consumers Union researchers concluded that many of these devices do a much poorer job of cleaning the air of dust and smoke than their advertising suggests. The report led to a lawsuit against the consumer group by Sharper Image Corp, which makes the top-selling Sharper Image Professional Series Ionic Breeze Quadra SI737 (and its similar S1637 model).

The suit was dismissed on First Amendment grounds in 2004, and in May of this year Consumers Union came out with a report questioning the safety of many table-top air cleaners, including the Ionic Breeze.

The testing group contended that the product, along with a few other tabletop air cleaners, emitted harmful levels of ozone, which can actually aggravate allergies and asthma.

Sharper Image is now offering a catalyst for the Ionic Breeze Quadra SI637 designed to reduce ozone. Consumers Union is in the process of testing the updated device.

"But even if it reduces ozone, you'd still have an air cleaner that does little to clean the air," the newest report states.

Manufacturer Responds

In a statement released in April, Sharper Image founder and CEO Richard Thalheimer defended the Ionic Breeze, noting that the product was rated highest in customer satisfaction in an independent survey of air cleaner owners.

"I am at a loss to explain the motivations behind what I perceive as an unfair assault by the Consumers Union, an organization we admired," he wrote. "... There should be no question that the Ionic Breeze is a proven effective air cleaner."

The company's general counsel tells WebMD that the original 2003 Consumers Union test of the product was unfair because the air cleaner ran for only a few hours before being compared to fan-driven cleaners.

"We have never said that we operated as quickly as a fan-driven unit," attorney E. Bob Wallach tells WebMD. "What we have said is that if you keep it on 24/7, as it is intended to be used, it works just as well."

Oreck's XL Professional Signature AirS8 was tested for the first time in the newly published report. Testers concluded that the product performed poorly in terms of cleaning the air as did other small ionizing models but did not emit unacceptable levels of ozone.

Oreck Corp. is based in New Orleans, and company representatives could not be reached for comment because of the evacuation for Hurricane Katrina.

Other Ways to Reduce Allergens

The CU investigators found that the air cleaners that worked the best also tended to be noisy and expensive to operate. They also pointed out that there is no consensus among medical professionals that indoor air cleaners improve the health of people with and without allergies and asthma.

"While capable air cleaners can trap dust, smoke particles, pollen, and pet dander, you can reduce all of those allergens without opening your wallet," the report noted.

Washington state allergist William H. Anderson, MD, says the clinical studies have been limited to assessments of high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, and the findings have been mixed. Anderson is a spokesman for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

"Many allergists do recommend these air cleaners, but there is certainly no consensus that if you put a HEPA filter in your house, your allergy symptoms will improve," he says.

The CU report recommends other measures to reduce indoor allergens including:

  • Banning indoor cigarette smoke, scented candles, incense, air fresheners, wood-burning fires, and scented cleaners from your living space.
  • Vacuum often, using a low-emissions machine.
  • Don't get pets if you are allergic, and, if you already have them, keep them out of the bedroom.
  • Encase pillows, mattresses, and box springs in dust-mite-proof covers. Wash laundry in the hottest water you can, and try to minimize carpeting and other furnishings that can harbor dust mites.
  • Ventilate rooms by opening doors and windows when appropriate and use outdoor-venting fans in kitchen, bathroom, and laundry areas to help expel gases, odors, and moisture.

"Air conditioning, which filters and dries the air, can be very helpful," Anderson says.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Consumer Reports, October 2005; pp 39-41. Jeff Asher, PhD, vice president and technical director, Consumers Union. E. Bob Wallach, general counsel and chief trial attorney, Sharper Image Corp., San Francisco. William H. Anderson, MD, allergist, Bellingham, Wash.; spokesman, American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

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