The new lights in the mailroom at Global Affairs’ Ottawa headquarters are dangerous. That’s the point. The Ultraviolet C rays they emit are carcinogenic. This makes them harmful to most living organisms – including the novel coronavirus, which is why those lights are there.
They’re the backbone of the Victory UV-C LED Decontamination System. And they’ve been used to decontaminate workstations in the mailroom since last September, after the federal government gave Lind Equipment Ltd., a small manufacturer from Markham, Ont., the chance to try eradicating COVID-19 from surfaces and air in a real-life environment. This has already proven highly effective in a lab: Tests at a state-of-the-art University of Western Ontario containment facility late last year found that Victory lights are 99.99 per cent effective at killing the COVID-19 virus.
It’s been a whirlwind year for Lind, whose chief executive officer says its sales pipeline has doubled since Western’s lab revealed its results, while it also develops new ways to use its UV-C lights, including for casinos and truck cabs.
The company has historically made portable lighting and power equipment for jobsites, and has done so for nearly a dozen years with slow, steady, low-double-digit percentage-point revenue growth. But the pandemic bred an unexpected change in strategy. “It was a mix of panic and wanting to do something to help out,” says Sean Van Doorselaer, Lind’s chief executive officer.
Mr. Van Doorselaer and company president Brian Astl bought Lind from its original owner in 2008. It was mostly a distributor back then, but they gradually began manufacturing their own products, eventually putting a focus on LED lighting.
Like at a lot of smaller businesses, Lind’s 30 staff spent the first days of the pandemic worrying about their future. In their case, a construction-sector slowdown could have killed demand for their wares. The fears were nearly realized. Revenue fell by nearly 70 per cent in April, Mr. Van Doorselaer says, and the team began brainstorming ways to avoid layoffs.
They soon heard of a Nebraska health system that had begun using UV-C light to decontaminate medical-grade masks to make them reusable in the face of shortages, and realized they could do the same. Their LED specialist was entrusted with tracking down the right “chip” – a standard component comprised of semiconductor layers designed to emit specific light wavelengths and brightness.
Once they found a chip to create the UV-C light they needed, the team began building prototypes of a light system, designing it to focus light beams instead of spraying them widely.
By late May, personal protective equipment shortages weren’t as big of an issue as they were when the pandemic began. But the Lind team realized they could configure LED systems to decontaminate other things, such as desks or high-traffic office areas.
Lind soon applied to the federal government’s call-out for prototype technology to combat the novel coronavirus – and in June, it won a $65,000 contract to install the UV-C light system at Global Affairs Canada.
The foreign-affairs wing of the federal government first installed it in the mailroom and a cloakroom at its Sussex Drive headquarters in Ottawa, in order to decontaminate work surfaces and equipment that’s shared by essential workers across multiple shifts, such as walkie-talkies and security vests. (Because the UV-C light is dangerous and carcinogenic, Lind warns users not to run the system with anyone present.) The department says it plans to install the light system in lockers, a workplace fitness centre and elevators, as well as in a conveyor system to decontaminate items coming into the building.
“We understood the need for improved disinfecting methods and wanted to reduce the need for harsh chemicals,” said Global Affairs spokesperson John Babcock in an e-mail. “We are continually looking at uses for the lights and the company is able to adapt the lights to seemingly endless possibilities.”
Though Lind had seen from earlier research that UV-C light could kill the novel coronavirus, Mr. Van Doorselaer and his staff wanted a stamp of approval for their own system. Last September, the team reached out to Western’s ImPaKT facility – which stands for Imaging Pathogens for Knowledge Translation – to see if they could test the tech there.
The lab had only opened months earlier, but quickly became a hotbed of COVID-19 research, thanks to both its extensive biological imaging equipment and Level 3 containment facility – a room so carefully controlled that even its power outlets are air-sealed. The ImPaKT team had studied a variety of COVID-19 decontamination technologies.
For its Lind tests, lab staff set up the company’s UV-C light system in a special cabinet in ImPaKT’s containment room. Dressed in Tyvek suits, special breathing apparatuses and double-layered latex gloves, ImPaKT staff then applied a solution containing the COVID-19 virus to polystyrene plates beneath the lights to run the tests.
“There are lots of reports of things as 99-per-cent effective in ads, which have no basis in reality,” says Eric Arts, ImPaKT’s director. But staff did find that Lind’s UV-C light was 99.99-per-cent effective in killing the virus in the lab environment. Dr. Arts said that though this does not confirm Lind’s Victory light system would be equally effective in the real world, “we think it’s reasonable.”
Lind is now working with other companies to embed the Victory UV-C light system in other products, including a machine to decontaminate casino chips, and a collaboration with Ontario and New Hampshire company Team Eagle Ltd. to put the technology in the cabs of shared vehicles.
Mr. Van Doorselaer says he expects that demand for decontamination technology will continue, even after mass COVID-19 vaccinations in the coming months.
“I feel that people will have a heightened sensitivity to pathogens, and to not getting sick, for quite a long time,” he said.
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