This story asks whether personal air purifiers provide some protection from pathogen-caused illnesses and mentions lab tests that suggest some efficacy in avoiding inhalation of small particles. It also explains the limitations of these lab studies, and notes that there is little evidence to support claims of actual health benefits associated with these devices.
It’s a messy world out there, especially on public transport. Passengers in planes, trains, and buses (among myriad other public spaces) will come into contact with pathogenic microbes, so any device that can help prevent infection would be most welcome. There are potentially huge economic rewards as well. A 2007 paper in The Lancet estimated the annual economic impact of seasonal flu in the U.S. to be in the tens of billions of dollars (direct medical costs alone were estimated at $10.4 billion). And that doesn’t even account for the “common cold,” asthma, etc.
Alas, the story accurately suggests that these rewards remain well out of the reach of this technology. The story clearly explains the difference between encouraging lab tests and actual real world results, meaning there’s no proof that these gizmos provide any tangible health benefits.
The story does mention that the two devices discussed each cost around $150, a fairly steep price for a device that offers no clear evidence of an improvement in health.
The story does a good job of discussing the manufacturers’ claims of their products’ effectiveness through tests in the lab, including the removal of micro-particles and “clearing” smoke close to the wearer. But more importantly, the story is specific in pointing to the difference between supposed “air-quality” measurements in the lab and any thwarting of the transmission of actual pathogens which would lead to real infections. The story also points out that much of the transmission of cold and flu viruses occurs when hands touch contaminated surfaces, something these devices have no effect upon.
The story does mention that the devices can produce ozone which, in some concentrations, can be harmful. It also cites one case where a similar device exploded during an air flight, mentioning that no one was seriously injured. It seems fair to consider the story satisfactory for this criterion.
The premise here is that these devices, when worn by the user, provide a protective effect against cold and flu pathogens. The story correctly points to the complete absence of any real evidence supporting that assumption, noting that it’s supported only by lab tests that it specifically says do not mimic real-world experiences. The story is fair, then, in accurately presenting available evidence, but we are troubled by how the story is framed in the headline — asking a question of efficacy and by doing so, suggesting that possibility — rather than simply reporting that there is no evidence that these devices work.
Cold and flu season is a recurring phenomenon, and the public’s concern over possible contagion is the primary motivation for the purchase of such devices. But while there’s a danger of wandering into disease-mongering territory with this topic, we don’t think the story crosses the line. The language in the story is pretty straightforward — there are no “scary” anecdotes and no dramatic language referring to colds or flu. For example the story says that “In cold and flu season, pathogens spread…” — it doesn’t refer to the “scourge of flu season” or use similar purple prose. And these are not uncommon health problems. We’ve seen more than 100,000 confirmed flu diagnoses so far in the 2014-15 flu season, so it’s a reasonable subject to write about.
While the story does quote representatives from the device manufacturers, as well as a university professor conducting the lab tests, it also quotes an environmental scientist from the National Institutes of Health and an infectious disease specialist from an unaffiliated medical center.
The story mentions no alternatives to the use of these devices. It does mention in passing that touching contaminated surfaces is an alternative route of infection to that of inhalation. But what about frequent hand washing? And in a story focusing on the lengths people will go to in order to lower their risk of catching the flu, it’d be nice to see some acknowledgment of the value of the flu vaccine.
The story discusses two products that are available for purchase. It also notes that people who have purchased one of these devices may not even be able to bring it on a flight.
We readily admit that we’re holding the story to a high standard here, but we do so unapologetically. In the context of a news story, any time something is not specifically labeled as “not new,” readers will likely infer that it is new. However, this technology has been around for quite some time, and the story doesn’t really establish that fact. The story does note that the study funded by a device manufacturer dates back to 2005. But it wasn’t new even then. For example, California’s Department of Health Services issued an updated(!) fact sheet on the health hazards of these devices in January of 1998. Establishing that back story would’ve clued readers in to the fact that we’ve seen this movie before.
The story features original reporting, so we can be sure it’s not based on a news release.