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Is Covid airborne? A good time to change your car's cabin filter

It makes good sense to clean or change cabin air filters regularly.

Published: July 9, 2020, 4:00 AM

vent air flow

It is widely understood that Covid-19 is spread through the disbursement of large droplets from infected persons, especially when coughing or sneezing. There is legitimate scientific debate, however, on whether or not the virus can also be spread through smaller airborne micro-droplets particles that linger in the air.

Some 239 scientists from 32 countries recently sent an open letter to the World Health Organization (WHO) arguing that particles smaller than what have previously been reported can carry the virus that causes COVID-19, posing more of a danger than public health officials have warned against.

Automakers are becoming increasingly more sensitive to the health and well-being of people inside and outside a vehicle, and one of the areas in which big strides have been made over the past decades is cabin filtration. There is no evidence that the filters in vehicles' HVAC systems can prevent Covid-19 infection but they can and do filter out pollen and other pollutants that are detrimental to health. So it makes good sense to clean or change them regularly.

Recent UK records, for example, showed a 12-year high for pollen counts, and though many cabin filters can filter out pollen, dust and bacteria, trapping those tiny particles also clogs up a filter and renders it less effective over time, subjecting occupants to what the Volkswagen calls “air filter flu,” as more harmful particles can’t be filtered out.

cabin air filter

Health authorities, such as NHS England, advise equipping vehicle air ventilation with pollen filters, and changing them at regular intervals.

“We advised van owners before the summer to replace old air filters to reduce hay fever suffering and it’s just as important to replace blocked filters ahead of winter, especially after a record year for pollen,” says Trevor Hodgson-Phillips, head of service and parts for Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles. “This is an example of quick and low-cost maintenance that helps to keep the driver and the van on the road.”

HVAC controls

Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles is particularly interested in the 25% of its van users the company says are running with dirty filters (relatively inexpensive, easily-replaced upkeep items). Its vans are equipped with multi-stage filters — the first layer blocks out large larger dust and soot particles, while a second layer blocks out the myriad tiny pollen and fungus spores that can lead to further health problems if they lodge in people’s lungs. A charcoal micro-filter reduces odours and gaseous pollutants, and helps reduce grime build-up on the inside of window glass.

With drivers getting their vehicles ready for winter, the company recommends making a cabin-filter replacement part of the fall tune-up to keep clean air flowing into the cabin and ensure good visibility out.