North Bay Fires: Yes, Californians Can Now Buy Air Purifiers on Amazon

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A tent structure burns on a golf course at the Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa, California on Oct. 9, 2017. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

During the deadly North Bay wildfires, air quality in the Bay Area has suffered -- a lot. In fact, air monitors have recorded the worst pollution since the state started keeping records for small particulates, in 1999. That goes even for areas as far removed from the disaster's epicenter as the South Bay.

Naturally, this has left people all over the region worried about pollutant-related health hazards. And not without reason.

"When we breath particulates they bypass the lung system and get into our bloodstream,” Lisa Fasano of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District told KQED's Lesley McClurg last week. "They exacerbate respiratory conditions like asthma, COPD [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease], emphysema and other conditions because they are very harmful.”

Air quality has improved this week, and the good news is that as it gets better outside, it will improve indoors as well.

"Fine particle pollution essentially acts like a gas, so if there is an  exchange between outside and indoor air, the indoor pollution will dissipate," said CARB Communications Director Stanley Young in an email.


Provided the air outside is clean, the indoor air will clear "in a matter of hours or days," not weeks, Young said.

Still, the air resources board definitely recommends purifiers -- portable devices that will clean the air, not just for fire-related pollutants, but for everyday use as well.

Peggy Jenkins, who manages the agency's Indoor Air Quality and Personal Exposure Assessment Program, says those air-cleaning devices that use filters designated as high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, work best, as they remove very small particles.

"The high-efficiency filters typically are deeper or more dense," Jenkins says, "and they can remove really almost 100 percent of the particles in the air. So we've seen very dramatic reductions in our air quality studies."

High Demand

But due to the fires, local stores have been selling out of the devices. Eliza Hersh of San Francisco, who recently hosted a Santa Rosa family forced to evacuate their home, has been on the hunt. Before her guests were okayed to go back home, they wanted to buy a purifier to clean the air in both their house and business.

"Every local place was sold out," Hersh said. "[They] were about to drive to Tracy."

With local stores depleted, Hersh and others naturally turned to an online source. And that usually means Amazon. Except there was a problem: Would-be buyers kept running into this message:

Many went on Twitter to vent ... . Here's just one of the many tweets:

Ozone Regulation

Here's the answer to that WTF: Selling air purifiers in California is a little complicated, because of a state regulation banning certain models that emit ozone. The California Air Resources Board calls ozone "a highly reactive, unstable, toxic gas" that can irritate and inflame the respiratory system and even cause permanent lung damage. CARB says ozone-generating air purifiers can produce several times the state's allowable levels.

Thus, the board maintains a list of potentially hazardous ozone-generating air cleaners that cannot be sold in the state, as well as a list of those that can. CARB updates the lists as frequently as each week.

The problem is would-be buyers were stymied even ordering models specifically certified as legal. On Tuesday, SFGate reported on the issue and got this statement from CARB:

"Amazon, unfortunately, has had problems shipping some CARB-approved air purifiers ...  so until Amazon addresses this error, consumers may opt for another company to purchase from."

So on Wednesday, we asked Amazon: What gives?

“Air filters must meet the California Air Resources Board’s unique restrictions before they can be legally sold into the state," Erik Fairleigh, an Amazon spokesman wrote in an email.  "As a result, we require suppliers to provide confirmation that air filters comply with the restrictions in order to be sold into California.”

Problem (Mostly) Solved

Well, in light of all this, we decided to run a little test. On Thursday, we selected a sample of 10 top-rated, CARB-approved air purifiers, each with at least 400 reviews from Amazon customers. (Here's the Amazon search we did to find our 10.) Then we went through the ordering process for each. Of those 10, Amazon allowed  seven to be shipped to a San Francisco address, and only three, all made by Honeywell, evoked the dreaded "can't ship" message. Amazon's Fairleigh also sent us a list of about 40 models he said Californians could successfully buy.

Meanwhile, Hersh provided us with the links to four Honeywell models she had sent to Amazon last Friday as examples of state-approved models that California customers couldn't get shipped to them. On Thursday -- yesterday -- 2 of the 4 that had been previously unshippable were now good to go. So that is progress.

If you still can't find an air purifier locally, give it another try online. Even as late as yesterday, purifiers remained a hot item in the region. On the Best Buy website, a small sampling of air purifiers we looked at were listed as available in each and every Bay Area store no sooner than Oct. 28.