UV-C can kill the coronavirus, but it has a few drawbacks…

Lance Stewart is a Life Fellow of the Illuminating Engineering Society and a ANZ Lighting Designer, and lighting control engineer, based in Brisbane, Australia.

SO, THE WORLD is in lockdown and the leader of the free world has suggested that we might use light to kill the coronavirus. 

And, as we are lighting dudes and gals and everything in between, I’d say this is our bailiwick: we are just the people to look into this.

Seeing President Trump’s advice, at first glance I couldn’t help wondering if it was sponsored by Fremulon, which famously finishes each episode of American comedy series Brooklyn 9-9 with “Not a doctor. Shhh”

Whenever I hear someone refer to light as artificial, or refer to ultraviolet as light, I wince. 

There’s no such thing as an artificial photon, even if its source was man-made. Bloody ‘lightist’ discrimination, if you ask me. 

Likewise UV light: it isn’t light, by virtue of not being in the visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum, unless you count some animals and maybe aliens (hmm, perhaps Trump is the only human being who can see UV?).

As for the glowing butt plugs and UV LED cocktails amusingly imagined by the public … no, just … no.

UV does have germicidal wavelengths – around 254nm does the job – and it is pretty spectacularly capable of blowing organic shit up to such an extent that, in a mere fraction of a second, a view through a microscope might capture the moment that UV causes a cell’s vacuole to somehow exits that cell’s formerly-intact membrane.

Apparently, cells need their bits intact and if you add a sprinkle of 254nm, the prognosis ain’t good.

So, if UV-C can be so lethal to pathogens, including viruses like the coronavirus (which I like to think of as ‘SARS… the sequel’), why are we so dismissive of these ideas from the President of the good ol’ US of A?

While injecting and guzzling bleach and other disinfectants was, at first glance, one of the world’s most tremendously bad ideas, isn’t he onto something with his idea of somehow getting UV into the body to kill the virus?

As any lighting person might know: no, Trump isn’t onto a good idea.

And whilst UV-C can produce ozone, and ozone therapy in the human body is indeed a thing, using UV-C germicidal wavelengths in the human body has a couple of pesky drawbacks: it is both an indiscriminate killer and causes some pretty nasty side effects, like polymerase dysfunction and carcinomas (fancy doctor talk for genetic damage and cancer). 

Whatever UV ‘light; can do to a pathogen, it can – and will – do just as well to your formerly healthy cells.

But you guessed all this, right? You only had to know who suggested it and you were immediately suspicious, and you only needed to think for a moment about the proposal to know It was going to turn out to be batshit crazy.

For me, science is about questioning everything, bringing critical appraisal to bear, and keeping an open mind. 

So, if the US Commander-in-Chief would like to be the first to try irradiating his innards, I will reserve my judgement until we see how many working organs he retains after being irradiated. The mouth is an organ too, right?

There may be hope for us yet.

  • Lance Stewart is a Life Fellow of the Illuminating Engineering Society and a ANZ Lighting Designer, and lighting control engineer, based in Brisbane, Australia.