Poised to fight flu in big way

Milwaukee's Desert Aire develops equipment to clean up after a crisis

Posted: June 18, 2006

Normally, Keith Coursin's company is engaged in the battle against high humidity. Now it's in the fight against avian flu and bioterrorism.

Desert Aire of Milwaukee installs dehumidification equipment in supermarkets, swimming pool enclosures and other ordinary settings that are unlikely incubators for a pandemic.

But the company also has developed equipment that it says could decontaminate an entire building or an airplane infected with avian flu, SARS or other deadly germs. The equipment is for a Florida company, Aeroclave, that's trying to generate sales from emergency managers and public health officials.

Such sales could result in a new branch of Desert Aire. "We definitely feel it could double our size," said Coursin, the company president.

Desert Aire, founded in 1978, is a privately held company with 110 employees. It has worked with AeroClave, based in Orlando, to create mobile units that could fight pandemics and also provide power, heat, air conditioning and a wireless computer network in the aftermath of a hurricane or tornado.

Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls Inc. has provided electronic controls for the units. Weldall Manufacturing of Waukesha has fabricated steel frames for each of the units that weigh 10,000 pounds and are enclosed in a 53-foot semitrailer.

Designed to be portable, the emergency-response units can be set up in about 30 minutes to decontaminate a passenger jet or a building by pumping in extreme heat and humidity through a ventilation system.

AeroClave says tests have shown the units can kill 99.99% of a nasty bug, such as avian flu, in less than two hours. In an airliner cabin, it's powerful enough to disinfect the pages of a magazine tucked inside a seatback.

None of the AeroClave units has been sold yet. Currently, one is being tested on an old DC-9 airliner parked at Orlando International Airport.

Pentagon officials have taken a look at AeroClave as a possible tool to fight bioterrorism. The Federal Aviation Administration also has shown interest as part of its research on decontaminating airplanes.

Something like an avian flu pandemic could have dire consequences for the travel industry if it's shown that airline passengers have spread the bug through global travel. In 2003, the SARS threat cost airlines hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue.

A yearlong flu pandemic would cost the world economy $800 billion, according to the World Bank.

Airlines rely on high-efficiency air filters to sift out airborne contaminants such as dust, pollen and bacteria. They also use disinfectants to wipe down hard surfaces such as lap trays and overhead storage bins.

"We do the sort of things that are pretty intuitive for most people," said Katherine Andrus, an attorney for the Air Transport Association, which represents major U.S. airlines.

But ordinary methods aren't adequate in the threat of a pandemic or bioterrorist attack, said Ron Brown, an emergency room physician and AeroClave's founder.

Planes provide a good environment for spreading disease, because passengers are in close quarters and are confined to the same space for hours. The use of disinfectants might be fine for cleaning hard surfaces, Brown said, but they aren't effective on things such as seat cushions.

"And you really can't use harsh chemicals inside an airplane, out of concern for the avionics," he said.

With AeroClave, the temperature inside an airliner is raised to about 155 degrees. The humidity is increased to levels far higher than what would be found in a rain forest.

The combination of heat and humidity kills viruses without damaging the airplane. The same system can be plugged into the ventilation system of a sealed building for similar results.

In the aftermath of hurricanes and tornadoes, Brown sees the mobile units as fast, effective ways to provide power and communications for public shelters - and to clean things up as well.

"At the end of a crisis, we could flip into decontamination mode and return a building to better hygiene than before we got it," he said.

The units cost about $650,000 each. They're intended more for emergency management than routine cleaning of passenger planes and buildings.

"We could have plugged about 10 of these into the Superdome and gotten rid of all the tuberculosis, staph and everything else" after Hurricane Katrina, Brown said.

A fleet of emergency vehicles could be decontaminated by pulling them inside a sealed garage and cranking up the heat and humidity, Coursin said.

That's one area where the military could use AeroClave, he said.

The system could be used to kill mold that threatens to damage homes.

"It's an area we have started testing on," Coursin said. "It could be a remedial solution to mold problems, short of tearing down a building."

The first buyers are likely to be emergency management agencies or airports rather than financially strapped airlines.

"Everybody is interested in this, but nobody wants to be the first to buy something," Coursin said.

The U.S. government has stepped up preparations for a potential avian flu outbreak and is testing AeroClave and other systems. Florida officials also have shown interest.

"To prepare for any potential disaster, whether it is a global pandemic or a hurricane, we must continue to pursue technologies like these," Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said in a written statement.

But not everyone is convinced that extreme measures are necessary to protect airline passengers from germs.

"I think it's really a myth to suggest that airplanes spread germs or need to be decontaminated," said Phyllis Kozarsky, a consultant in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's division of global migration and quarantine.

"Decontaminating an airplane is sort of like picking out one little piece of our daily activities and assuming that's where an illness will come from," she said. "Whenever you put people close together, whether it's on trains, planes or Christmas shopping at the mall, there's going to be an increased risk of spreading" a communicable disease.

When people are taken off an airliner, the risk of spreading disease generally dissipates. It doesn't linger inside an empty cabin for days at a time, according to Kozarsky.

It's people, not empty airplanes, that are the problem.

"We ought to be urging people not to fly if they're sick . . . just like we should urge them to stay home from work when they're sick," Kozarsky said.

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