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What is in the Air? by Terry Beaudoin

What is in the Air?
By Terry Beaudoin
Parrot Island, Inc.
IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant
Member Association of Avian Veterinarians

A better question for us to ask might be: What is in the air that our companion birds breathe once they are living in our homes? The understanding of companion birds specific physiological needs and the affect captivity has on them has been gradually improving as they have been with us in our homes for more and more years. The observances of those of us who keep companion birds (especially those who have had birds who have lived with them for many years) combined with the work of a number of dedicated avian veterinarians (who have seen those same birds through the years) has given a clearer picture of the affect that confinement in our homes with their varying air qualities has on them over a period of time.

Birds are generally more susceptible to inhaled toxins than mammals because of their rapid metabolic rate, small size, highly efficient respiratory system and low body fat content. They also seem to retain toxins in their system (primarily in the liver or kidneys) allowing the possible build up over a period of time of various toxic agents that can eventually cause illness or death - when the separate, individual levels of these same toxicities may not have been enough to cause problems.

Potential toxins in the air can have a number of recognized affects on our birds health. These health problems include: severe dermatitis - skin and feather damage, sinusitis, Respiratory Tract inflammation, pneumonitis, seizures, immune system suppression, general depression, Central Nervous System damage, disorientation, weakness, Gastrointestinal Tract irritation, kidney and liver damage, pulmonary hemorrhage and in the most severe cases - sudden death.

The birds we keep in our homes today are not much removed from their wild counterparts; in fact they are considered to be physiologically the same. Another way to look at this would be to say that any of our companion birds, if hatched in the wild and in decent conditions, would have been able to survive. This is important in our understanding of how the exposure and inhalation of various airborne contaminants or potential allergy causing agents could affect animals that would never have been exposed to, or have developed resistance to them in their wild environments.

The extent to which your home is sealed from the outdoors during various times of the year will play a large part in what may be contained in the indoor air and possibly inhaled by those inside. For instance, here in the Midwest we are forced to shut our windows because of the drastic changes in climate for as much as 6 months each year! When most people think about air pollution, they think about the air outdoors. However, the air quality in many people's offices and homes is significantly worse than the air outside! In a recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA's) study of human exposure to air pollutants it was found that indoor levels of pollutants may be two to five times, and occasionally more than 100 times higher than outdoor levels! Indoor air can have a more significant effect on health because most people spend about 90 percent of their time indoors and most companion birds spend even more of their lives indoors. There has been an enormous increase in the last 20 or so years in children under five years old that have asthma. More than 15 million Americans have asthma! The general public is becoming more aware of the significant health risks from indoor air pollutants and mold in their homes. There are a number of air contaminants regularly found in indoor air that can be potential problem causers. The listing below will cover many of the more commonly found contaminants.

1) Combustion Products: for our purposes this would primarily be cigarette or cigar smoke. Cigarette or cigar smoke has even been known to cause problems for some birds by their having come in contact with their owners clothing after it has been exposed to smoke. We have had experience with this in the case of several of our customers whose birds were showing signs of respiratory distress. The symptoms primarily included redness and swelling of the cere as well as discharge from the nostrils. When these customers began to wash their hands thoroughly and changed the clothing that they were wearing before handling their birds the problem disappeared.

2) Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from building materials, such as upholstered furnishings, carpeting (especially carpet treated with stain prevention chemicals), adhesives, fresh paint, new paneling, some particle boards (the adhesives used in them can out gas for some time) and pesticides. Teflon and other non stick coatings used in cooking pans and self cleaning ovens could be placed in this category as well.

3) Particles. Including pollen, dust mites, dirt and pet dander. Birds can have many of the same allergic reactions to inhalation of these particles as we do. We have many customers whose birds benefit greatly when antihistamines (prescribed by their avian veterinarian) are given certain times of the year. These birds also significantly benefit when given a regular oil supplement, one of the best is Sunshine Factor which can be found on this website. This benefit is derived from these oils outstanding anti inflammatory properties.

4) Bioaerosols. Such as certain mold spores and bacteria, viruses and fungi. Mold, in particular Aspergillus species, have become recognized as one of the more pervasive causers of health problems found in our homes for us and our birds. Typically found in the shower, kitchen or basement, these plant spores also grow any place that is warm and humid.

5) Household Products, such as many cleaning products, hobby supplies, solvents, adhesives, paints, hair sprays and dry-cleaned clothing to name just a few.

Although I do not believe that most of our homes have severely polluted air in them, it is clear to me that it is in our best health interests to attempt to prevent any problems that may be caused by the above potential contaminants. It is even more clear to me that if we are going to spend a great portion, if not all, of our lives with companion birds we owe it to them to attempt to keep them as healthy and happy as possible. How do we attempt to better the air quality in our homes? There are three widely recognized strategies for reducing pollutants in indoor air.

Source control, we should do what we can to eliminate individual sources of pollutants or reduce their emissions. Some sources, like Teflon coated pans or self cleaning ovens, should simply not be used when birds are in the environment. Unfortunately, not all pollutant sources can be identified and practically eliminated or reduced.

Adequate Ventilation, This is done through the circulation of outside air into the inside of our homes. It can be achieved by opening windows and doors, by turning on local bathroom or kitchen exhaust fans, or in some situations, by the use of mechanical ventilation systems with or without energy recovery ventilators. Because of cost factors there are practical limits to the extent ventilation can be used to reduce airborne pollutants. Costs for heating or cooling incoming air can be quite high, and in some cases outdoor air itself can contain levels of contaminants that are considered to be unhealthy.

Air Purification. This is done through the use of air purification systems, either systems attached to the household heating or cooling system or through portable units designed to be placed in an individual room. These systems should be used to supplement source control and adequate ventilation as the use of air cleaning devices alone cannot assure adequate air quality, particularly where significant sources are present and ventilation is inadequate. The rest of this article will deal with air purification and in particular the use of portable air purifiers.

There are many types of different air purification technologies available to choose from, through personal usage, the opinions of several avian veterinarians and a significant amount of time doing research over the last 20 years I have come to have an opinion about which purification systems achieve our goals best.

I will now discuss the primary types of air purification available as well as their effectiveness in purifying the air in our homes.

1) HEPA Filters. HEPA stands for High Efficiency Particulate Air. These filters are designed to remove 99.97 percent of all airborne pollutants that are 0.3 microns or larger from the air that passes through the filter. These include tobacco smoke, household dust, pet dander and pollens.

These filters are excellent at particulate removal but do nothing to remove chemicals or to destroy potentially harmful bacteria, viruses or molds. It is crucial that the HEPA pleats in these types of filters are changed regularly to prevent mold and bacterial growth on the pleat itself, which can then be reintroduced back into the air in large quantities. Dr. Tammy Jenkins, our avian veterinarian and ongoing source of invaluable information, has cultured Aspergillus mold from numerous air purifier pleats when trying to determine the source of the infection she has diagnosed in a clients bird. Some of the companies producing filters that solely use large HEPA pleats recommend that the pleat be changed only once every 3 to 5 years! I have found that replacement of the pleat should occur every 3 to 6 months depending on conditions in the individual home. They should also have some type of coarser prefilter pleat placed in front of them to help increase their efficiency by containing some of the larger particles before they reach and potentially clog the HEPA pleat. Another issue to be concerned about with these types of filters is how much airflow actually passes through the pleat as opposed to passing around it. Air is like water in that it will attempt to find the easiest way to pass through an obstacle. Until about 6 months ago I was using a filter that combined a number of the filtration technologies I am covering in this article, including HEPA filtration. This filter was the best that I could find up until that time. My primary disappointment in this filter was that it was apparent that not all of the airflow was passing through the HEPA pleat. Simply looking at the filter pleat when it was time to replace it revealed this problem. It was only dirty on the upper half of the pleat, the other portion looked new after 3 months of usage!

2) ULPA Filters: These ultra HEPA filters are designed to trap 99.999% all air-borne particles down to 0.12 microns from the air that passes through the filter. These include tobacco smoke, household dust, pet dander and pollens as well as some bacteria and viral particles. I have had similar experiences with ULPA filters as I have had with HEPA filters with the exception that the ULPA filter pleats used are even more efficient at particulate removal. This efficiency makes it yet more important that they be changed regularly and that they have some type of coarser pre-filter pleat placed in front of them as their ability to filter out smaller particles also causes them to plug and restrict airflow sooner. This restricted airflow not only lessens the efficiency of the filter, as less air can pass through to be purified as it continues to clog up, but the lessening of airflow also creates a better environment for mold to grow.

3) Ion generators: These purifiers use static charges to remove particles from indoor air by charging the particles in a room, so they are attracted to walls, floors, table tops, draperies, occupants, etc. In some cases, these devices contain a collector to attract the charged particles back to the unit. These filters as well as the Electrostatic Precipitators have become some of the most popular air purification units sold today. This is largely due to the fact that they are less costly to use as they have no filter pleats, media or bulbs that need replacement and they tend to be very quiet. A non profit group known as the Consumers Union, they produce Consumer Reports Magazine and have a website at, produced a study on several of the most popular, and heavily advertised of these types of purifiers during February of 2002 as part of their regular product testing and research program. In its extended testing, Consumer Reports gauged how well each air cleaner could handle the periodic introduction of small amounts of pollutant into a sealed test chamber over a 6 hour period. One set of tests used smoke, another fine dust. A second set of tests gauged how well each cleaner worked for the next 17 hours, after the last injection of pollutant. Even when Consumer Reports experts ran the Ionizers and Electrostatic Precipitators on high to maximize performance; and several other types on their lowest, quietest setting it was found that the Ionizers and Electrostatic Precipitators tested did not come close to the performance of the others. Consumer Reports experts found them quiet but ineffective and advised readers that there are much better air cleaner choices. There have been other studies into these types of purifiers, particularly those that do not trap some of the charged particles. These studies looked at the effect of particle charging and the potential of charged particles to bypass a living organisms natural defenses and become deposited in the respiratory tract. Those experiments have shown a linear increase in particles being charged and their ability to pass natural defenses, therefore, the use of ion generators may not reduce the dose of particles to the respiratory tract, in fact, they possibly increase it.

4) Electrostatic Precipitators: These air cleaners create opposite charges on the metal plates or wires inside the filter which attracts the dust, pollen, smoke and other particles to a plate or grid wire that contains an opposite charge. The plate or grid can be washed of the particles and used again. See above.

5) Ozonizers: These air cleaners introduce small quantities of ozone into the air to sterilize and reduce airborne pollutants.

These air purifiers make me the most nervous when used around people or companion birds as ozone above a certain level is considered harmful to any living creature. The actual concentration of ozone produced by an ozone generator depends on many factors. Concentrations will be different varying by how powerful a device is used or if more than one device is used, if a device is placed in a small space rather than a larger one, if interior doors or windows are closed rather than open, if the room has fewer rather than more materials and furnishings that will adsorb or react with the ozone and, provided that outdoor concentrations of ozone are low, if there is less rather than more outdoor air ventilation. The proximity of a person or bird to the ozonizer can also affect the level of exposure. The concentration is highest at the point where the ozone exits from the filter, and usually decreases with distance. Ozonizers typically provide a control setting to adjust the level of ozone output. The ozone output of these devices is usually not proportional to the control setting, meaning if set at medium it does not necessarily generate an ozone level that is halfway between the levels generated at low and high. The relationship between the control setting and the output varies considerably among devices, although most appear to elevate the ozone output much more than one would expect as the control setting is increased from low to high. In experiments to date, the high setting in some devices generated 10 times the level obtained at the medium setting (US EPA, 1995). Available scientific evidence show that at concentrations that do not exceed public health standards, ozone has little potential to remove indoor air contaminants including chemicals, particles, viruses, bacteria, mold, or other biological pollutants. .

6) Ultraviolet Light: UV purifiers treat air moved through the filter by shining ultraviolet light on it during the milliseconds necessary to deliver the appropriate UV intensity to any contaminant in the moving air. It is essential that the UV intensity be powerful enough to deliver enough intensity to destroy the contaminant.

There are many scientific medical studies showing the efficiency of UV germicidal irradiation (UVGI) in the destruction of various disease causing organisms including molds, bacteria, fungi and viruses. These studies showed very similar results, by comparing the results of the initial air sampling, before the introduction of UV purification, to that of the follow up, after introducing the UV purification, air sampling, the following results were found in several hospital settings:
A) The analytical results for follow-up air sampling indicated airborne molds within the medical facility to be one to three orders of magnitude lower, 10 to 1,000 times, than the sample results for the initial air sampling (prior to the installation of the UV air-purifying unit). Airborne mold levels within the medical facility were judged to be less than that of the outdoor, or background, air sample obtained on the day of the follow-up air sampling. B) It was also found that by using UV purifiers in the HVAC system of these hospitals that overall sickness was reduced by 20%, respiratory symptoms reduced by 40% and it had also resulted in a 99% reduction of viruses, microbial and endotoxins (endotoxins are part of a gram negative bacterias cell wall they are notoriously hard to destroy and are toxic to most mammals and birds. The effectiveness of UV Light used in the correct wavelengths for the proper exposure times is very impressive.

7) Chemical Filtration Media: This is usually a filter cartridge made with specially formulated gas absorption media that remove chemical pollutants such as exhaust fumes, organic hydrocarbons, pesticides, formaldehyde from particle board used in home construction, paint solvents, chlorine, cleaning chemicals and other potentially toxic fumes.
Another media used is activated coconut carbon pleated for maximum surface area to remove potentially toxic chemicals caused by cooking, heating and air conditioning systems, etc. Activated carbon also rids the air of low-level ozone.

Chemical filtration media have been used and tested in laboratories, hospitals and many other environments repeatedly over the last 5 plus decades with great success. They are a very specific type of air purification in that they strictly remove chemical and gaseous pollutants. They also need to be replaced regularly (anywhere from every 3 to 9 months depending on the quality) as they tend to absorb only a certain amount of pollutants before starting to gradually release them into the air.

In conclusion I have found that an air purifier that combines the best of the above in that it will include:

1) A high quality particulate filtration in the form of a HEPA or ULPA Filter pleat (with a coarser pre-filter pleat placed in front of them).
2) A high quality Chemical Filtration Media that is designed to be changed every 6 to 9 months.
3) An Ultraviolet Light of the correct wavelength and intensity for the airflow thru the filter.

For more information on the filter systems we use and recommend both at Parrot Island and in our home with our companion birds you can take a look at the Health and general care section of our website at or email me at

This article was published on Tuesday 22 February, 2005.
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