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Mountain West’s dry climates allow some airborne viruses to live twice as long, study finds

Mark Hernandez and Marina Nieto-Caballero wear white lab coats as they stand next to a metal wall with technological equipment visible on the opposite wall
Patrick Campbell
University of Colorado
Mark Hernandez of the University of Colorado and Marina Nieto-Caballero of Colorado State University stand inside a bioaerosol chamber.

Humidity can play a big role in how long airborne viruses can survive, according to a new study out of the University of Colorado Boulder.

Researchers released airborne particles of a coronavirus similar to the one that causes COVID-19 into chambers with different levels of humidity. They found the particles remained infectious for twice as long in dry environments like those in much of the Mountain West.

CU Boulder Professor Mark Hernandez, the senior author of the study published in PNAS-Nexus in December, said his hypothesis that humidity and saliva are important in the transmission of COVID-19 was a “gross hunch.” After all, humans spew microscopic droplets of spit and snot with every breath and those droplets sometimes carry airborne viruses.

“We accept this if we have a cat or a dog. The dog slobbers and the cat licks itself. If it dries out, you gotta scrub [the slobber], right? It’s different than if it’s wet, then you just wipe it up,” he said. “That physics has a lot to do with the survival of what’s in it.”

Hernandez released some coronavirus airborne particles covered in fake spit and others without it into chambers with different levels of relative humidity – 25%, 40% and 60%.

They found that in the higher humidity chambers, half of the airborne particles were infectious after an hour, but at 25% humidity, half of the particles were still infectious after two hours.

“Everything else is the same," Hernandez said. "I just drop the humidity 15% from 40 to 25 and it doubles its half-life. That’s remarkable.”

He explained that the saliva dried around the particles in the low-humidity chamber and made a protective glass-like layer around the virus.

For reference, recent humidity levels in Albuquerque and Denver have been below 25% while Reno, Salt Lake City, Boise and Laramie all had recent humidity levels between 40% and 60%.

“It shows this virus can hang around for quite a while – hours, even," Hernandez said in a news release. "It's longer than a class, longer than the time you're in a restaurant, longer than the time you take to hang out in the cafe. An occupant may come in, spread coronavirus in the air, and leave. Depending on architectural factors, then someone else could walk into that space with potent doses still hanging around.”

He added that the virus can survive for longer in arid environments than the average time it takes a building’s ventilation system to replace the stale air carrying the particles with fresh outdoor air.

His advice? To increase ventilation or open some windows.

“I hope this paper has an engineering impact in our buildings, for example, in schools and hospitals, so we can minimize the infectivity of these viruses in the air,” Colorado State University's Marina Nieto-Caballero, the study's lead author, said.

The researchers say it could help explain why arid Colorado had such a high rate of flu-like illnesses last November.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2023 KUNM. To see more, visit KUNM.

Emma Gibson
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