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UV light technology gets business boom as COVID-19 killer

Next month, in a meeting through the Indiana Sheriff's Association, several counties will get a firsthand look at UV-C disinfection machines.

JOHNSON COUNTY, Ind. — Technology that's been used to kill germs for 100 years, is getting a lot of renewed interest right now by restaurants, gyms, doctor's offices and jails.

Ultraviolet light is known to kill viruses. It was first widely used to wipe out tuberculosis outbreaks in the early 1900's.

But does it work against COVID-19?

The sheriff in Johnson County already battled a COVID-19 outbreak in the jail this spring. Nearly half the inmates tested positive.

Now, Sheriff Duane Burgess is considering a piece of technology to fight the virus moving forward: a potential COVID killer.

Next month, in a meeting through the Indiana Sheriff's Association, several counties will get a firsthand look at UV-C disinfection machines.

They use ultraviolet light to kill microorganisms and viruses on surfaces.

"I want to see this stuff," Burgess said. "But right now, the market is so packed, everybody in the United States, they're wanting these machines."

Demand has certainly skyrocketed.

Mark Timmons, President of US Water Systems in Indianapolis, sells UV-C, air and water filtration systems.

Since COVID-19 hit, he's getting orders for ultraviolet light devices nationwide.

"I would say our business is up 4, 5, 600 percent," Timmons said. "Restaurants of course, doctor's office, hospitals, airports, prisons. Any place where there's human to human transmission, ultraviolet light can help tremendously. When any microorganism is exposed or virus is exposed to the ultraviolet light, it actually scrambles its DNA and it's dead. It's effectively killed."

Credit: US Water Systems in Indianapolis
UV light system sold by US Water Systems in Indianapolis.

The jail in Jackson County got a UV-C machine for a trial run before the pandemic. Since then, they bought one for $40,000 dollars from a company called Skytron.

The jail commander, Chris Everhart, swears by it and said they've had no coronavirus cases. Employees are taking less sick days, and inmates' health in general, has improved.

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Light to kill viruses

But what does science say? Can ultraviolet light really kill COVID-19?

Dr. Tillman Kubis, an engineering professor at Purdue University who's conducted research related to UV-C, says yes.

"It will kill COVID-19 for sure," Kubis said. "I mean, this is knowledge, it's been proven often enough. There's absolutely no reason it wouldn't work, as long as the exposure time or the dose for the DNA is high enough."

He says in order for the virus DNA to be destroyed, you have to get every nook and cranny, every shadow in the room.

For a small room, that takes about 14 minutes. Larger spaces can take a couple of hours.

"As long as you expose it long enough, there's nothing left," Kubis said.

"I want to see the results," Burgess said. "It's going to take a little bit of work to get there, to show that it really is working."

Burgess is excited about the potential, but the model he's considering, just like Jackson County, costs $40,000.

So for the price, he still wants lots of proof from several jails before purchase.

If they end up buying a UV-C device, most of it would be paid for with CARES Act money.