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
Desert Aire of Milwaukee installs
dehumidification equipment in supermarkets,
swimming pool enclosures and other ordinary
settings that are unlikely incubators for a
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
Such sales could result in a new branch
of Desert Aire. "We definitely feel it could
double our size," said Coursin, the company
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
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
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
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
A yearlong flu pandemic would cost the
world economy $800 billion, according to the
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.
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
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
"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
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
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.