Photo: Cynthia Goldsmith | CDC Image source:

Researchers may have figured out a new way to fight airborne flu virus and it involves simply turning on a light.

During one of the worst flu seasons in years, many people have been trying to protect themselves by washing their hands, , and even wearing protective face masks. But if you’re on a crowded subway or in an ER waiting room full of coughing people, there is usually little you can do to protect yourself from airborne flu virus.

But now, researchers have developed a variation of ultraviolet light that is safe for humans and can be used to inactivate viruses and bacteria in the air, according to a

For years, ultraviolet light has been used in hospitals to help control germs on surgical equipment and to sterilize rooms, but it was too harsh to use around humans.

“Unfortunately, conventional germicidal UV light is also a human health hazard and can lead to skin cancer and cataracts, which prevents its use in public spaces,” David Brenner PhD, study leader, Higgins Professor of Radiation Biophysics, and director of the Center for radiological research at Columbia University, said in a statement.

By using a new form of ultraviolet light, far-ultraviolet C (far-UVC), Brenner and his co-authors say they can inactivate viruses without hurting a person’s skin or eyes, according to the

The news comes amid a particularly severe flu season in the U.S.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), all states except Hawaii and Oregon are continuing to report widespread flu activity. Currently, 43 states are reporting high influenza-like illness activity.

A new way to attack the flu

Far-UVC light uses short light waves at the far end of the UV-C spectrum. As a result, it cannot penetrate the outer protective layers of human skin or eyes. However, it still can affect and alter biological materials such as bacteria and viruses.

Many viruses can be transmitted through airborne methods such as human coughing, sneezing, and breathing.

In this study, scientists were able to take aerosolized particles of the influenza A virus (H1N1) — also known as “swine flu”— and inactivate them with very low quantities of far-UVC light. They found that over 95 percent of the H1N1 particles were inactivated, a success rate similar to the traditional UV lamps.

With the development of far-UVC, the previous benefits of conventional germicidal ultraviolet light can now be used on human skin. The researchers hope to use this method as an additional way to control infection in public locations such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, schools, airports, and even airplanes.

Even “[helping] limit seasonal influenza epidemics, transmission of tuberculosis, as well as major pandemics,” according to a study author.

The researchers believe that this technology may not be limited just to zapping the influenza virus, but may be effective at neutralizing all airborne microbes. In previous studies, Brenner’s team have demonstrated that far-UVC was even effective in killing the most common bacteria in surgical wound infections, MRSA.

This could mean that this new technology may help in the ongoing battle against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. However, the researchers acknowledge that the light may be more or less effective against other microbes, and that more study is needed.

Potential limitations of UV bulbs

“It’s intriguing,” Dr. William Schaffner, professor of Preventive Medicine and Infectious Disease at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said of the study but explained he also had reservations about its effectiveness.

For example, “if [UVC blubs] get dust on them, their efficiency diminishes,” he explained.

Schaffner also pointed out that the influenza virus is spread mainly through droplet transmission usually within six feet of contact, which may not be impacted by far-UVC’s attack on airborne virus particles.

However, he said, this technology could potentially help people who are especially vulnerable to the flu and other diseases.

“This could be good for profoundly immunocompromised patients,” said Schaffner.

“Those with influenza in the healthcare settings, such as those in isolation suites who are particularly vulnerable.”

Researchers hope to bring these lamps to the market for widespread use. Currently these lamps cost less than $1,000, but Brenner believes the cost will decrease if the lamps were to be mass-produced.