Noah Webster Microsociety Magnet School in Hartford Credit: Courtesy of UConn Health

Gov. Ned Lamont announced last week that his administration will release  $150 million to help upgrade heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in Connecticut public schools to improve air filtration. 

But medical staff and scientific researchers working on the University of Connecticut’s Indoor Air Quality Initiative say schools can improve the quality of their air with a $64 purchase at their local hardware store. 

The program – led by Marina Creed, a nurse practitioner at the UConn Health Comprehensive MS Center – has already provided 200 so-called ‘Corsi-Rosenthal boxes’ to Coventry public schools, 100 to elementary school cafeterias in West Hartford, 10 at the Hartford Public Library and more at the South Park Inn Shelter in Hartford. 

The boxes – a grouping of a box fan, cardboard, high-rated filters and duct tape – provide a quiet and effective way to reduce particles in the air that cause the transmission of viruses like COVID-19. 

“This can’t occur during the school year. This is major surgery,” Creed said of the recently-announced HVAC improvements. She added the work will also likely kick up a bunch of minerals and other troubling materials including asbestos and lead paint. These boxes at least would help ease that impact, she said. 

“Obviously it needs to happen, but why not have these in the classroom as a bridge to that long term solution?” Creed said. “I can’t imagine why we would want to spend the next two to three years with the same known problem when this could be on Monday.” 

The idea for the boxes came during the pandemic, Creed said. Her patients battling Multiple Sclerosis – a disease of the brain and spinal cord – have been suffering disproportionately. The disease also predominantly affects women more than men, Creed said. 

“So many of my patients are educators in Connecticut public schools, or mothers with children within the Connecticut public schools,” Creed said. These parents alerted her that the schools were not using portable air cleaners as part of a mitigation effort in contrast, she said, with what schools in Rhode Island are doing. 

Creed decided to look into the matter, and went to the social media platform Twitter to investigate. Dr. Richard Corsi – Dean of Engineering at the University of California, Davis – put out a tweet wondering if four good air filters and a box fan put in a certain configuration, could work to help filter the air. 

Noah Webster Microsociety Magnet School in Hartford

Thus, in August 2020, the Corsi-Rosenthal Boxes – named after its inventors and Jim Rosenthal – were born, and scientific researchers say they remove 90% of virus-carrying aerosols from the air, as well as dust and allergens. Putting one together only takes a half hour.

UConn’s Air Quality Initiative team, which began their work in September 2021, also includes Dr. Kristina Wagstrom, associate professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering, 

Wagstrom said the boxes were tested in a classroom at UConn that was about the size of a public school K-12 classroom. 

“We are looking at particles that are smaller.  So, when you speak you’re producing droplets, which are larger, but you are actually producing actual respiratory aerosols which are smaller particles,” Wagstrom said. Higher-rated filters are effective in grabbing smaller particles, which is where researchers are seeing infectious disease transmission, she added. 

“They are doing a really good job of mixing the air and removing some of those particles,” Wagstrom said,  adding there is a significant drop in those particles between before the fan is turned on and when it has been turned off. The reduction, she explained, is anywhere between 50 to 80 percent. 

“That’s a pretty big reduction just by using off-the-shelf stuff from a local hardware store,” Wagstrom said. 

Creed said the fans are quiet and unobtrusive to have in a classroom and pose no safety hazard. While they can be run on low speed when children are in class, teachers can turn up the fans to a high speed when kids are out to lunch or at recess. 

“It’s as quiet as a refrigerator, and uses about as much electricity as a 60-watt light bulb,” Creed said. “For about $65, you have the power to clean your own air.” 

Creed recommends a filter change every nine months. 

“When the filters are dirty, it’s still working and working well,” Creed said. 

Students can also put together their own boxes as part of a science project. Creed just became a Girl Scout leader for her daughter’s second grade troop, and she plans on working with Girls Scouts of America to make a merit badge for creating a box.

 “This has been shown, in both a lab and a real world setting, to perform as well as a commercial HEPA filter for one third of the cost, and it’s a science project for kids,” Creed said. 

UConn’s Air Quality Initiative continues to grow, recently receiving a $300,000 grant – funded through cryptocurrency from Balvi, an investment and direct giving fund which was formed to fund COVID-19 projects. 

The Initiative is also bringing this science to K-12 classrooms and college courses with STEM lesson plans for students and staff, coordinators said. 

Creed said the benefits of improving air quality are better attendance and academic performance.

“We have a choice about the water we drink. We can choose to drink and filter our water,” Creed said. “We do not have the ability to choose the air we breathe.”

The Initiative is organized by UConn Health and its Comprehensive Multiple Sclerosis Center, with the UConn Schools of Nursing, Engineering, Medicine, the Department of Public Health and Sciences and the Connecticut Area Health Education Center Network.