IONS — Should we be so negative?

Many of us have walked past a „New Age“ store on our way to work, our peripheral vision bombarded with various machines, jewellery and stones which promise to permeate your home and life with healing energy. Now, as appealing as this sounds, I’m sure the majority of us dismiss these contraptions as slick feats of marketing and move on with our day, unwilling to open our minds to something new, afraid of novel discovery. Let’s put to rest the stories of peddlers of magic crystals and examine the facts, the science behind ions.

What are ions?

These are atoms or molecules that carry a positive or a negative charge as they have an unequal number of protons and electrons in their structure. When a molecule gains extra electrons it becomes a negative ion. These charged molecules are common in nature, especially around moving water like waterfalls and waves. In fact, NASA uses equipment to detect negative ions in their search for planets where water may exist. Plants have been shown to prefer environments rich in negative ions instead of neutral or positive ones, increasing their weight by as much as 18% when exposed to negative ions.

The history of air ion research actually dates back to the second world war, when the father of ion research- Dr Albert Kreuger- conducted top-secret research at Berkeley until his death in 1980. What was so special about these negative ions that caused his research to warrant top-secret status? Perhaps the answer to this mystery lies in some of his findings. Kreuger demonstrated that ions of both charges inhibited bacterial and fungal growth. He showed that negative ions, specifically, could neutralise airborne bacteria; protect sick mice; even affect serotonin levels- improving mental health. Since his death, Kreuger’s research has inspired the scientific community to delve deeper into the mystery of ionised air and the results have not disappointed.

Since the mid 90s, scientist couple Mr and Mrs Terman have conducted pioneering research on the impact of negative ions on depression and seasonal affective disorder. A combined analysis of 5 studies found that negative ionisation was associated with lower depression ratings, especially with high concentrations of negative ions. A Japanese study also proved that students exposed to negative ions had lower markers of stress and anxiety, as well as increasing self-reported feelings of alertness, atmospheric freshness and personal warmth. Perhaps the most shocking statistic was that negative ion exposure halved the number of complaints of headaches within the study group.

In the early 2000s, a hospital study was conducted to find out whether bacterial infection rates could be lowered by treating the air with negative ions as stipulated by Kreuger’s research. The clear-cut results shocked even the experimenters as they watched infection rates plummet to zero. The theory is that negative ions collide with harmful microbes and other neutrally charged particles like dust, promoting aggregation which in turn forces them onto the floor and other surfaces where they can be easily removed- truly miraculous. Negative ions really do seem to be an effective and fairly inexpensive way to clean our air and promote our general and mental health. But what are the drawbacks?

While considering which products may be best for ionising our air, it is important to keep a few things in mind. What ionic output level does it create, if any, and does it produce any harmful byproducts? Output level is extremely important in this field as the beneficial effects of negative ions that we have described only start to come into being at higher doses, around 3000 per cubic centimetre. Urban areas have an average of about 100, natural environments around 1,500-4000 and waterfalls are the most abundant sources at around 10,000 per cubic centimetre. While the effective dose starts at around 3000, most machines produce only a few parts per billion, rendering them useless in our quest for vitality. Another thing to watch out for is byproducts. Many of these magic machines are sold without the customer being informed that the equipment will produce harmful ozone, perhaps while not producing any negative ions.

We have seen that the benefits of air ionisation can be incredible but be sure to do your own research before buying a whirring box from your local collector of Himalayan salt lamps.

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