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Commentary: Killing Germs with Electrical Fields – Using Irreversible Electroporation (IRE) Rather Than Toxic Chemicals?

October 22, 2011

By Allen P. Rathey

Can you zap germs with a safe, controlled charge of electricity and kill them without using harsh chemicals? One company, Activeion Cleaning Solutions LLC (Minneapolis MN) says you can by a process called electroporation, which the company claims its activated water sprayer uses to kill 99.9% of germs to a sanitizing level using only tap water.

What is electroporation? In lay terms, electroporation uses an electrical field (the “electro” part) to create pores (the “poration” part) in cell membranes.

Electroporation is used medically to create openings in cell membranes for inserting DNA (after which the pores close, heal, and the cells live on), as well as to create relatively large collective holes or pores intended to destroy cells. The former is known as electroporation, while the latter is known as irreversible electroporation (IRE).

Activated water sprayers produce irreversible electroporation (IRE) to kill germs – a process that uses physics not chemistry – according to Activeion.

Source of the Term: Activated Water

Where did the term “Activated Water” come from? Apparently a Russian scientist (Igor Smirnov) coined the term to described the results produced by “Molecular Resonance Effect Technology” which modifies “the molecular arrangements and activity of water…[and activates it to influence] cellular life structures.” In Smirnov’s research, activated water produced an 86% decrease of total and fecal coliforms in rainwater in a 30 minute exposure and a 44% decrease of bacterial colonies in lake water activated for 15 minutes. “Thus the suppression of harmful microorganisms by Activated Water was confirmed,” he concluded.

IRE Proven to Kill Germs

In Medicine

IRE has been used to kill cancer cells and is showing promise as a noninvasive way of destroying tumors (IRE in this context was developed at the University of California, Berkeley, which holds a number of patents on the technology.)

According to UC Berkeley: “Irreversible electroporation uses electrical pulses that are slightly longer and stronger than reversible electroporation. With IRE, the holes in the cell membrane do not reseal, causing the cell to lose its ability to maintain homeostasis and die.”

In Food Preservation

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), when electroporation is used to kill germs in foodstuffs, it creates “destabilization of the lipid bilayer and proteins of cell membranes, as well as the formation of pores induced when a microbial cell is temporarily exposed to high voltage electric field pulses.”

In this context, Pulse Electric Fields (PEF) are applied to germs leading to irreversible generation of pores leading to the breakdown of the bacterial cell membranes and cell death. IRE in this form has been used to extend the shelf life of apple and orange juice, eggs, milk and even pea soup by killing bacteria present.

Skeptics

When some scientists were asked whether irreversible electroporation is a reasonable explanation for how Activeion kills germs, there was deep skepticism.

“I believe that electroporation requires a lot more energy than is likely to be generated with a hand-held activated water device,” said Dr. Charles P. Gerba, Professor of Environmental Microbiology, University of Arizona.

“No, unless they can explain how their ionization process is equivalent to placing a suspension of bacteria between two electrodes and discharging a short, high voltage, pulse of electricity across the electrodes,” said Dr. Jay Glasel, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Microbial, Molecular and Structural Biology at the University of Connecticut Medical/Dental School in Farmington, Connecticut. “Yes, electroporation does kill bacteria. But that doesn’t mean that spraying whatever Activeion’s device is spraying on things kills bacteria by the same process.”

Electroporation – Still Not Well Understood

According to the book, Irreversible Electroporation (Series in Biomedical Engineering), edited by Boris Rubinsky, published by Springer in December 2009: “Certain electrical fields when applied across a cell can have as a sole effect the permeabilization of the cell membrane, presumably through the formation of nanoscale defects in the cell membrane. Sometimes this process leads to cell death, primarily when the electrical fields cause permanent permeabilization of the membrane and the consequent loss of cell homeostasis, in a process known as irreversible electroporation.This is an unusual mode of cell death that is not fully understood yet.” [italics mine]

The Data Says

Activeion has had its product tested and “proven” at reputable labs as a sanitizing device whereas some of its critics have claimed reliable testing “refuting” its claims. Recent independent microbiology tests conducted at a major eastern university have shown promising results.

Scientific Support

According to David Mudarri, PhD, former Senior Indoor Air Quality Scientist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): “Independent microbiology tests which I reviewed demonstrate that activated water’s pathogen log reduction is equivalent to EPA-registered sanitizers but apparently without the liabilities associated with chemical germicides.  Activated water in this configuration apparently creates its germ-killing effect by electroporation in which an electrical charge punctures the cell membranes of germs, killing them within six seconds. This product and technology looks promising for health and environment conscious users.”

Summary

While the jury is still out on the antimicrobial efficacy of Activeion’s technology, the results to date are interesting. It will be necessary to evaluate the results from further testing before drawing hard conclusions.

[Disclosure: The author has worked as a paid consultant for Activeion via his company InstructionLink/Jantrain, Inc.]

Originally published March 26, 2011 by Healthy Facilities Institute

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One Comment leave one →
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