What U should know about UV and how it differs from what you might have heard about on TV…
Light is made up of pockets of energy called photons and different types of light have photons with different amounts of energy. These photons travel as waves – the more energetic the photon, the closer together the wave peaks (higher frequency) and, since all light travels at the same linear speed, the shorter the wavelength (like a little energetic kid running zig-zaggedly so he keeps pace with his grandpa on their walk).
When you shine light on something it’s like streaming pennies and nickels and dimes of free energy money for molecules in its path, but the molecules have to have the right “slot size” in order for them to accept these coins (this “slot size” corresponds to differences in energy levels between subatomic particles called electrons, which are what atoms share to form bonds to form molecules).
If a molecule has the right slot size it can absorb the light. If the light was part of the visible light spectrum (the part of the electromagnetic radiation (EMR) spectrum our eyes are specialized for detecting and interpreting) you’ll see a color change because the molecule basically stole a slice of the rainbow – white light is made up of light of all colors, each corresponding to a different wavelength. ROYGBIV = white, but RYGBIV or ROYBIV doesn’t, and this is the basis of how dyes work.
But molecules can also absorb light that is outside of our visible range. This includes less energetic (longer wavelength, lower frequency) light, like infrared or microwaves, as well as more energetic (shorter wavelength, higher frequency) light, like ultraviolet (UV) or x-rays.
We can’t see when this happens (at least with our naked eye), but it has the potential to alter molecules. When a molecule absorbs light, what happens is that the electrons in the molecule get temporarily excited and they “jump up” to a higher energy level. But it’s hard to stay excited, so they often just give the energy back – usually as heat, etc, but sometimes as light (which is the basis of fluorescence). Sometimes, however, the absorbed energy from the light can be used to break, form, or alter chemical bonds – including in DNA.
Our cells use DNA to hold our genetic blueprint (genome) – containing instructions for making (and regulating) all the proteins, etc. we need to live. You don’t want to mess with it because if you do, things like cancer can occur. SARS-Cov-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) is an RNA virus – it has an RNA genome instead of a DNA one – and it’s single-stranded, unlike our genome, which is double-stranded.
DNA & RNA letters (nucleotides) have light “coin slot sizes” that correspond to light in the UV range. When DNA or RNA absorbs UV light it can “spend” the energy money to form improper bonds, like strong bonds called pyrimidine dimers between neighboring bases in the same strand. If these don’t get fixed, or if they get incorrectly “fixed” before the genome gets copied, there will be permanent mutations in all future daughter cells.
Our cells have complex machinery on guard to try to correct errors before the DNA gets copied and the error gets passed on, but if they get too much UV exposure they get overwhelmed and errors slip through the cracks. And if those mutations do things like mess up a regulatory molecule, cells can start growing uncontrolledly to form a cancerous tumor.
So it might sound like hitting a virus with this light isn’t a good idea – we want to STOP them from growing right? Key thing is, when it comes to viruses, they have much smaller genomes with much less room for error and much less proofreading & fixing power, so their RNA gets *fatally* flawed. In addition to causing dimers, UV light can make viral RNA strands actually break, and therefore it can kill viruses instead of giving them superpowers.
The virus has no hope of fixing this broken RNA and, without functioning RNA it can’t survive, so UVC light *can* be used as a disinfectant – BUT for SURFACES (and maybe air) – NOT for people. If the virus is on someone’s skin and you shine them with UV light you *might* kill the virus on the skin, but you’re also putting that person at risk of skin cancer. And if the virus is inside someone (they’re already infected) – shining UV light on them will not cure them – the UV light would get absorbed by their skin (potentially messing up their DNA) before it had any chance of even getting to the virus to kill it.
So, DON’T SHINE UV LIGHT ON PEOPLE!
That warning out of the way, how *can* UVC light be used in the fight against Covid-19 (and other germs)?
First, a note about types of UV light. Sunlight contains light in the dangerous for DNA & RNA, UV range. The UV light in sunlight can be divided into 3 main classes defined by their wavelengths (given in nanometers (nm) – the shorter the wavelength, the higher the frequency and higher the energy): UVA (315-399nm), UVB (280-314), & UVC (100-279nm). UVA, the “sluggish-est” only penetrates the outer layers of our skin and are blamed for wrinkles and other long-term damage and UVB is known to be carcinogenic (cancer-causing). https://bit.ly/2S8dZ8J
UVC light is the most energetic of the bunch and has the best virus-killing-power, but the atmospheric ozone layer blocks most of it. UVA & UVB still get through and cause sunburn, DNA damage, etc. (hence sunscreen-wearing). There’s some evidence that sunlight can slow viral growth but it’s UVC (the blocked-out one) that’s the biggy. https://bit.ly/2zryiHL
Just because the ozone blocks it doesn’t mean we can’t generate it ourselves down here on the ground. Most “germicidal UVC” lamps typically have a wavelength of ~260 – 285 nm and are used to disinfect rooms and surfaces when people are not inside. There’s also this method where low levels of UV light are put out only in the upper part of the room, away from people, to kill the upper air.
There’s been some buzz about something called “far-UVC light,” Columbia University’s Center for Radiological Research developed a lamp that shines a low level of far-UVC light (207–222 nm). This short-wavelength UVC light is thought to be able to kill viruses and bacteria without harming human tissues because the wavelengths of light they use get absorbed by our dead cell layers before they can reach our live cells. But microbes aren’t so fortunate – they don’t have layers of dead cells protecting them – or even layers of cells at all – so when they get hit by the light, they can get damaged. It follows up on this report from 2018 https://go.nature.com/2KDR8O8
They say it’s effective against cold-causing coronaviruses as well as some other germs, and now are testing it against SARS-Cov-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19). That’s cool – but an important thing to remember is that that technology is still just being tested in a lab. There are a few companies making far-UVC products now, but they haven’t yet gotten FDA & EPA approval. https://bit.ly/3bG05Cy
All those products you see on the market are NOT this safer version of UV light, instead they’re the “normal” UVC. Which is definitely NOT safe for skin – or eye – contact. I’ve mostly mentioned skin because that’s the biggest region UV light is likely to hit, but UV light can also cause eye problems. You might be used to the term carcinogenic (cancer-causing) but apparently “cataractogenic” is also a real term – and a real danger.
The far-UVC folks are hoping that it can be used in public spaces to help keep things clean – and that would be great, but I’m a bit skeptical, because UV doesn’t “work” instantaneously – it’s not like if an infected person sneezed the UV would kill the virus before that sneeze droplet reached the person they’re talking to.
The damaging power of UV depends on the intensity of the radiation (does your light source have a “heavy flow” of electrons?), the distance from the object (some of the photons are inevitably going to get “distracted” or absorbed by other things en route), and how long the object is exposed. If you know these things you can calculate the “dose”
Intensity at the light source & distance from the light source combine to give you the “irradiance,” reported in milliwatts (mW) per square centimeter (cm²). Times that by how long the object is exposed to get the dose. If you times mW/cm² by seconds (s) you get mWs/cm² which is aka 1 mJ/cm².
This all sounds really technical, and you don’t need to know all the fancy science terms – but what you do need to know is that you have to have an adequate dose to kill. not all UV lights are created equally, and the UV lights sold to consumers often don’t tell you their irradiance. And that matters… If you have a really weak light, you’re gonna have to get it really close to the object and/or shine it on the object for a really long time. But if you have a stronger light, you’re more likely to accidentally harm yourself with it in the process.
What dose do you need to kill SARS-Cov-2? It depends on the material of the object. A study used one of those hospital-grade germicidal UV lamps, held 50 cm (a little under 2 feet) away from objects to see what dose of UV light was needed to kill SARS-Cov-2. At this distance, the irradiance was 0.005 mW/cm² (aka 5 microWatts (μW)/cm² and it took ~1hr to completely disinfect an N95 mask (corresponding to a dose of ~18 mJ/cm²) and ~12 min for steel (corresponding to a dose of ~3.6 mJ/cm²). https://bit.ly/3az9haA
Like I mentioned above, most companies don’t tell you their irradiance, but it’s probably a lot less than a hospital-grade lamp. Which means you’re gonna have to shine light on things for a long time in order to disinfect them.
The Illuminating Engineering Society (an INDUSTRY GROUP) told CNN: “Ultraviolet disinfecting ‘wands’ or other ultraviolet products for residential use — as they are inadequately proven and unregulated — may pose a safety hazard and are unlikely to provide the protection expected” https://cnn.it/357bQzu
Just like bleach, these aren’t things to mess around with! But, if you choose to use UV, please, pretty pretty please, keep the light away from people!