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Some in-car tips for surviving COVID-19

Experts are still unsure of how the novel coronavirus is transmitted, so an abundance of caution is prudent while you’re in a car — any car.
Experts are still unsure of how the novel coronavirus is transmitted, so an abundance of caution is prudent while you’re in a car — any car. - 123RF Stock Photo
DAVID BOOTH

I’m not a medical expert. Nor have I conducted any hands-on research into the novel coronavirus (“novel” because it was previously undetected and therefore has no vaccine), how it’s transmitted, or even why some people’s reaction to COVID-19 is one giant meh, while others require two weeks of intensive ventilation. So, please feel free to ignore the rest of this column, especially if you’re sure you already know as much as you need to about COVID-19.

On the other hand, if the past week of researching the coronavirus has taught me anything, it’s that the very best medical practitioners in the world don’t seem to know, either. We’re still not absolutely sure of how this disease is transmitted, why this particular strain of “flu” is so virulent, and beyond the always important — and, out of necessity, oft-repeated — admonishment to become a hermit with a hand hygiene fetish, there is precious little exactness to the counsel proffered. The best advice, then, remains to act with an abundance of caution. Here’s what that looks like inside your car.

Anything you have touched or might touch needs to be swabbed and swabbed well. Edward Marchese, who is a Qualified Safety Sales Professional as well as an auto detailer, says to use a CFIA-certified (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) cleaner, such as Attack by B.C.’s Maxim Technologies. It’s designed specifically for hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and food processing plants, for maximum safety and cleaning power. It’s available at Planet Clean.

One of the reasons all this cleaning is so essential is that some now believe the virus can “live” on some surfaces. In fact, we’ve been pretty much inundated with headlines — written, of course, to maximize the scare factor — that the bug can last for up to three days on certain surfaces. All these stories are quoting a National Institutes of Health study that says, in laboratory conditions, the novel coronavirus could survive for up to three days on plastic and stainless steel.

Less publicized was that it has a far less robust half-life on cardboard, something less than a still-disturbing 24 hours. Although there is no specific explanation for the difference, there’s been speculation that the more fibrous cardboard is more absorbent. If that is indeed the case, and that man-made surfaces are more welcome hosts than organics, then that aforementioned abundance of caution behooves us to spend even more effort on the cleaning of our interiors’ shiny surfaces, beyond even the buttons and switchgear we touch on a regular basis. It also implies — and this is my own conclusion, not the study’s — that artificial seating surfaces might bear more attention than the more luxurious cowhide variants. Yes, wouldn’t you know it, the rich with their leather-clad Mercedes win again, their cars less attractive to worldwide pandemics.

Even scarier were the headlines — from the same report — that the coronavirus could remain in aerosols (particles that float in the air) for up to three hours. The media jumped on this as yet another explanation of why COVID-19’s transmissibility seems so much more virulent than other coronaviruses. Less publicized is that the authors stressed this atomization required very specific, laboratory-only technology, including a rotating drum to keep the viral particles airborne. In other words, the coronavirus may still not be transmittable through the air, the authors in fact emphasizing that their study “is not evidence of aerosol transmission.” Indeed, this aerosol-like transmission may not be possible simply because the water droplets we cough out are too heavy to float.

Nonetheless, our now-practiced abundance of caution again behooves us to treat this as a possibility and short of everyone returning to the bad old days of driving everywhere solo — or requiring passengers to don gas masks — the best defense might be a good heating and air conditioning filtration system. In this case, it’s state-of-the-art HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filters, which, according to manufacturers, can eliminate 99.97 per cent of airborne particles all the way down to 0.3 microns (300 nanometres).

Actually, they might even do better, one NASA study — Submicron and Nanoparticulate Matter Removal by HEPA-Rated Media Filters and Packed Beds of Granular Materials — suggesting they can filter right down to 0.01 microns (that’s 10 Nm or 1/10,000th the diameter of a strand of hair). That distinction may be important since, according to a recent paper by the National Center for Biotechnology Information in the U.S., “coronavirus virions are spherical with diameters of approximately 125 Nm.” That’s 0.125 microns. In other words, HEPA filters can, depending on whose efficiency you believe, reduce or completely eliminate the coronavirus from a car’s cabin, especially since it is more likely attached to a larger water droplet than a small aerosol particle.

Unfortunately, I don’t have very much information on which cars have HEPA filters as standard equipment beyond the generalization that luxury vehicles are most likely to boast superior filtration. Simply put — and I apologize for not having more specifics — automakers are currently so overwhelmed by the coronavirus crisis that, despite repeated inquiries, few (actually, none) have responded with definitive model selections. What I do know is that filtration manufacturers — Bosch stands out — do make HEPA filters for a large number of automobiles. Checking with your dealer whether your car is so equipped might be a wise decision, as would getting your filters replaced — their superior filtration means they need more regularly scheduled maintenance — to better cope with any current or future virus infiltration.

It might even be prudent to check if the aftermarket — again, check Bosch — has HEPA filters available for cars not so equipped as standard equipment. Tesla’s Model S and X, for instance, come equipped with HEPA filters, and the factory even offers a retrofit kit for older Model S and Xs, Elon Musk claiming that his Bioweapon Defense Mode — yes, that is its real product name — is “100 times more effective than premium automotive filters” and “removes at least 99.97 per cent of fine particulate matter and gaseous pollutants, as well as bacteria, viruses, pollen and mold spores.” Let’s hope that, for once, Musk’s hyperbole isn’t exaggerated.

It should probably go without saying that, even in extreme cold — and, this being Canada, you know we’re in for one more deep freeze this season — you should not use your air conditioning system’s recirculation system, no matter how much more quickly it warms up the cabin. I’m also assuming that everyone is carrying cleaning supplies to survive taxis, Uber — which has suspended its carpooling service in Canada and the U.S. — and public transport.

These last, I suspect, are looking to this crisis as existential. Should all this quarantining, social distancing, and travel restriction stuff last just a couple of more weeks, things will probably return to normal. Should the current situation be extended, say through summer, it’s hard to imagine consumers returning to ride-sharing and ride-hailing services in the numbers we’ve been predicting as the future of mobility. As it’s shaping up, COVID-19 will almost assuredly be paradigm shifting, that which we currently take for granted — including, for some of us, never cleaning the inside of our cars — forever altered. In the meantime, keep your Handi Wipes, well, handy.

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