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Should chemical biocides be applied to the inside of air ducts?

No products are currently registered by EPA as biocides for use on fiberglass duct board or fiberglass lined

ducts so it is important to determine if sections of your system contain these materials before permitting the application of any biocide.

Air duct cleaning service providers may tell you that they need to apply a chemical biocide to the inside of your ducts to kill bacteria (germs) and fungi (mold), and prevent future biological growth. Some duct cleaning service providers may propose to introduce ozone to kill biological contaminants. Ozone is a highly reactive gas that is regulated in the outside air as a lung irritant. However, there remains considerable controversy over the necessity and wisdom of introducing chemical biocides or ozone into the duct work.

Among the possible problems with biocide and ozone application in air ducts:

  • Little research has been conducted to demonstrate the effectiveness of most biocides and ozone when used inside ducts. Simply spraying or otherwise introducing these materials into the operating duct system may cause much of the material to be transported through the system and released into other areas of your home.

  • Some people may react negatively to the biocide or ozone, causing adverse health reactions.

Chemical biocides are regulated by EPA under Federal pesticide law. A product must be registered by EPA for a specific use before it can be legally used for that purpose. The specific use(s) must appear on the pesticide (e.g., biocide) label, along with other important information. It is a violation of federal law to use a pesticide product in any manner inconsistent with the label directions.

A small number of products are currently registered by EPA specifically for use on the inside of bare sheet metal air ducts. A number of products are also registered for use as sanitizers on hard surfaces, which could include the interior of bare sheet metal ducts. While many such products may be used legally inside of unlined ducts if all label directions are followed, some of the directions on the label may be inappropriate for use in ducts. For example, if the directions indicate "rinse with water", the added moisture could stimulate mold growth.

All of the products discussed above are registered solely for the purpose of sanitizing the smooth surfaces of unlined (bare) sheet metal ducts. No products are currently registered as biocides for use on fiber glass duct board or fiber glass lined ducts, so it is important to determine if sections of your system contain these materials before permitting the application of any biocide.

In the meantime

Before allowing a service provider to use a chemical biocide in your duct work, the service provider should:

  • Demonstrate visible evidence of microbial growth in your duct work. Some service providers may attempt to convince you that your air ducts are contaminated by demonstrating that the microorganisms found in your home grow on a settling plate (i.e., petri dish). This is inappropriate. Some microorganisms are always present in the air, and some growth on a settling plate is normal. As noted earlier, only an expert can positively identify a substance as biological growth and lab analysis may be required for final confirmation. Other testing methods are not reliable.

  • Explain why biological growth cannot be removed by physical means, such as brushing, and further growth prevented by controlling moisture.

If you decide to permit the use of a biocide, the service provider should:

  • Show you the biocide label, which will describe its range of approved uses.

  • Apply the biocide only to un-insulated areas of the duct system after proper cleaning, if necessary to reduce the chances for re-growth of mold.

  • Always use the product strictly according to its label instructions.

While some low toxicity products may be legally applied while occupants of the home are present, you may wish to consider leaving the premises while the biocide is being applied as an added precaution.

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