Air FilterLife Science

Commercial and Public Building Air Filters for Laboratories: A Rigorous Examination of Containment and Protection

By December 8, 2023 No Comments
20–24 minutes to read

Laboratories in pharmaceutical and biopharma facilities are highly sensitive environments that must meet rigid air quality standards. Sophisticated air filtration is an absolute necessity in laboratories where researchers, products, instrumentation, and equipment within the facility, as well as people and environments outside the facility, must be protected. 

Dangerous materials that are handled and manipulated in laboratories within the life sciences, healthcare and nuclear medicine R&D facilities, for example,  must be properly contained to maintain appropriate biosafety levels and mitigate risk. Air filtration solutions that account for both incoming and outgoing air will prevent exposure to harmful contaminants and ensure regulatory compliance while keeping maintenance and energy costs low.

Let’s take a closer look at the critical role air filters play in containment and protection in laboratory environments.

The Imperative of Optimal Air Quality in Laboratories

Optimal air quality is vital to both a safe laboratory environment and overall public health. At the same time, research integrity is the foundation of reliable, efficient scientific progress. The nexus between proper air quality and research integrity is highly complex. Proven processes and accurate, reliable data are needed to understand and mitigate risks involving airborne pollutants.

Consider the potential health implications of suboptimal air quality for scientists and laboratory personnel. In addition to studying infectious agents, bacteria, viruses, parasites, and toxic substances, lab personnel could be exposed to biological, chemical, and radioactive materials. These substances could contribute to a wide range of health problems, including respiratory conditions, skin conditions, and reproductive and neurological problems.

As a result, there are stringent regulatory and compliance standards that govern laboratory environments. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established such standards, including:

  • The Occupational Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals in Laboratories Standard 
  • The Laboratory Ventilation Standard
  • The Respiratory Protection Standard

In addition to OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Transportation (DOT), and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have regulations that apply to the handling, storage, transportation, and disposal of hazardous materials. There are also voluntary compliance standards and guidelines developed by professional laboratory organizations such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the Clinical and Laboratory Standards Institute (CLSI), and the College of American Pathologists (CAP).

Cataloging Potential Airborne Contaminants in Laboratories

Numerous biological agents found in laboratory environments can affect not only humans but also animals and plants. Found in air, water, soil, and food, many biological agents are highly contagious, easily spread, and capable of causing serious illness, infections, and allergic reactions. The most common biological agents include bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites.

Volatile chemicals and solvents represent another potentially hazardous category of airborne contaminants. These substances are commonly used in laboratories for chemical synthesis, extraction, cleaning, and other applications. Volatile chemicals and solvents are often toxic and can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory system and cause organ damage or even death. Many are also highly flammable. 

Particulate matter comprised of solid and liquid particles varies in size and comes from both natural sources and human activities. Contamination involving particulate matter can have a significant impact on research fidelity by affecting equipment operations, causing errors in measurement and analysis, and skewing air quality measurement. Particulate matter can also affect research fidelity by impairing researchers’ cognitive and respiratory function.

Air Filtration Systems:  A Scholarly Review Tailored for Laboratories

There are several types of air filtration mechanisms that are essential to the removal of contaminants and maintaining research integrity in laboratory environments. These mechanisms include:

  • Straining. Much like a strainer used in food preparation, large particles are captured when they can’t pass through pores that are smaller in size.
  • Inertial Separation. Particles small enough to pass through most pores, but with enough mass to resist directional changes due to airflow,are captured when striking a fiber directly.
  • Interception. Slightly smaller particles with less mass that  are intercepted when their path of travel through the air changes, and they get caught on  filter fiber.
  • Diffusion. When kinetic energy causes the smallest  particles to move randomly through the air (aka Brownian Motion),  and are captured when striking very fine fibers. 
  • Electrostatic   This mechanism relies on an electrostatic charge on the fiber which attracts small particles that would otherwise slip past. Very effective filtration mechanisms for N-95 masks for example, but the gradual loss of the attractive properties is problematic for air filters.Now that the most common air filtration mechanisms are understood, let’s dissect the various types of air filters and the appropriateness of each in a laboratory environment. 
  • General Ventilation Air Filters. Filters for general ventilation are commonly tested and classified according to the MERV scale as defined in ASHRAE Standard 52.2. The range of MERV rated filters runs from 1-16 and can have an efficiency as high as 95% on particles between 0.3 micron to 1.0 micron. The filters are used as the primary air filter for incoming air through HVAC systems, and as prefilters to HEPA and ULPA filters. 
  • HEPA. Tested and certified high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters are capable of capturing a minimum of 99.97 percent of airborne particles that are 0.3 microns or larger, including bacteria and viruses. HEPA filters are widely used to maintain research integrity and the health of personnel. For example, cleanrooms and laboratories that handle hazardous materials typically use HEPA filters.
  • ULPA. Even more efficient than HEPA filters,ultra-low penetration air (ULPA) filters, which are designed to capture a minimum of  99.9995 percent of airborne particles that are 0.12 microns or larger. ULPA filters are often found in laboratories where microchips, pharmaceuticals, and aerospace products are manufactured, as well as biomedical research laboratories that handle highly infectious agents.
  • Activated Carbon. With a large  surface area of activated carbon, these filters adsorb  molecules to remove volatile organic compounds, strong odors, and hazardous gases. In a laboratory environment, activated carbon filters are used with HEPA or ULPA filters to maximize air purification. 

In addition to filtration mechanisms and air filter types, air filter ratings or certifications must be considered when designing a comprehensive filtration solution for a laboratory environment. The ratings provide helpful benchmarks when evaluating air filters based on the type of pollutants and the desired air quality.

The minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) rating system uses a scale of 1 to 16 to indicate a filter’s effectiveness in removing particles. The higher the rating, the higher the efficiency, and the smaller contaminant the filter is capable of capturing.  MERV filters (8-16) are typically sufficient for general laboratory use and as prefilters for HEPA filters. 

When purchasing HEPA and ULPA air filters, verify they have been tested, certified and labeled at the factory to ensure the filters meet efficiency, airflow, and resistance requirements defined by the Institutes of Science and Technology (IEST), ISO Standard 29463 or EN Standard 1822. Because HEPA and ULPA air filters are used in the most critical of applications, such as laboratories, users should always demand a Certificate of Compliance for each filter to ensure that the filters meet the published standards of verified authorities. Camfil air filters are tested and certified in accordance with the IEST Recommended Practice for Testing HEPA Filters (RP-CC034), to ISO Standard 29463 and EN Standard 1822.

Navigating the Complex Terrain of Air Quality Maintenance in Laboratories

Meeting air quality standards in a laboratory environment is inherently complicated due to the diversity of pollutants that must be removed or stopped from entering the space, the research personnel, materials, and equipment that must be protected, and the variety of risks involved. 

For example, laboratories that handle the most dangerous pathogens often require the highest HEPA filtration protection. The labs typically require a combination of directed airflow and specialized exhaust systems, gas-phase filtration with activated carbon filters, and ultraviolet germicidal irradiation systems for disinfection. Cleanrooms may require  ULPA filtration, along with multiple pre-filtration stages, ultraclean air showers, and positive pressure to prevent unfiltered air from entering the room.

Designing and implementing an effective air filtration system begins with identifying and evaluating the roadblocks to optimal air quality. Start by asking the following questions:

  • What types of research activities are being conducted?
  • What contaminants are present inside the laboratory or could be produced through research activities, human activity, cleaning, etc.?
  • What are the concentration levels for the contaminants?
  • What are the potential health risks?
  • What is the potential impact on research?
  • What safety and air quality regulations must be satisfied?

Collaboration between commercial air quality experts and laboratory designers and personnel is ideal when developing an optimal solution that includes the appropriate equipment, configuration, and ongoing monitoring and maintenance plans. Beyond standard ventilation and exhaust, key components of laboratory air filtration design include:

  • Dedicated air handling systems that are separate from the rest of the facility.
  • Directed airflow patterns that move air towards exhaust systems, not people.
  • Fume hoods and ventilated workstations that capture hazardous contaminants created during experiments.
  • Smooth, nonporous surfaces that minimize the accumulation of dust particles and other pollutants.

Criteria for Optimal Air Filter Selection in Laboratories

In addition to answering the questions from the previous section, there are a number of factors that influence the choice of air filters in a laboratory environment. Obviously, a larger laboratory will require an appropriately sized filtration system with sufficient air filters  to account for the volume of airborne pollutants in a larger space. However, more specific information related to the type of research activities must also be taken into account. 

For example, the presence of hazardous materials and biological agents will require higher-efficiency air filters. Small particles can affect highly sensitive equipment, such as microscopes and delicate electronic components, resulting in unreliable data and research findings. Organizations will also need to balance both upfront costs and ongoing maintenance costs with operational efficiency when choosing an air filter, although air quality should never be compromised to save money. High-quality air filters and regular maintenance are essential to filter longevity, providing the efficiency and consistency necessary to safeguard research integrity and data accuracy while satisfying compliance requirements.

Frontiers in Laboratory Air Filtration:  An Examination of Innovations

Innovations in BMS (building management systems) have made it possible to monitor filter performance to keep up with ever-increasing challenges and regulatory requirements in laboratories. Today’s BMS systems allow remote, real-time monitoring of air quality and automatically send alerts when levels approach specific thresholds. This allows operators to maximize cost-efficiency and system performance. Predictive analytics and real-time data collection enable proactive maintenance, optimal scheduling, and trendspotting to minimize downtime and extend the life of the system. 

In addition to smarter systems, advancements in air filter material have increased containment capabilities. New manufacturing techniques allow for greater filter media surface area and lower pressure drop which reduces operational cost. Product coding with serial numbers during manufacturing allows for complete traceability of a HEPA filter and its testing history. Multi-layer filtration systems use multiple filter stages t to maximize particle control and efficiency, while the integration of  activated carbon enhances the  facility’s ability to eliminate volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other gaseous pollutants from research areas

Innovations in laboratory air filtration have also resulted in sustainability gains. Energy-efficient air filters, recyclable air filter material, and precise controls enable organizations to reduce energy consumption, while new capabilities such as demand-controlled ventilation automatically adjust system usage based on occupancy and current air quality data.

Operational Protocols:  Filter Implementation and Maintenance in Laboratories

Air filter installation in a laboratory environment should be handled by trained professionals after comprehensive planning and evaluation. A risk assessment should identify contaminants and possible hazards as discussed previously. The assessment will inform the selection of air filters. 

All surfaces where the air filter will be installed should be cleaned, disinfected, and sanitized to prevent contamination. Special care must be taken to avoid touching air filter media and prevent damage that could compromise containment capabilities and create compliance risk.

Based on manufacturer instructions, a regular maintenance schedule, including inspection, cleaning, replacement, and other tasks, should be documented. This schedule should be reviewed and updated as needed based on real-time filtration data and laboratory conditions.

While air filtration installation and maintenance are the domain of expert technicians, laboratory personnel should be educated in air filtration dynamics. From the fundamentals of air filtration to the interpretation of air quality data, understanding how an air filtration system works and what the data means will enable faster troubleshooting and reduce the risk of downtime.

Case Studies:  Laboratories Exemplifying Air Filtration Excellence

Laboratories around the world have demonstrated the tangible benefits of prioritizing air quality, both in research outcomes and the safety and well-being of personnel. For example:

  • A multinational pharmaceutical company in Spain partnered with Camfil to install a dust extraction system for containing explosive dust and toxic substances. Read the full case study to see how the company increased safety and reduced the risk of contamination. 
  • A large medical marijuana producer in Ontario, Canada, partnered with Camfil to install particle and molecular filtration tools to control strong odors and comply with Health Canada regulations. Read the full case study to see how the company achieved its goals.

Conclusion:  The Incontrovertible Mandate for Superior Air Quality in Laboratories

Optimal air quality in laboratory environments is a business imperative. Without exceptional air filtration, the health and safety of personnel, the integrity and progress of scientific research, and investments in technology and instrumentation are at risk. 

Organizations that are committed to making a difference in research laboratories must be equally committed to maintaining the highest possible air quality in these environments. Achieving the gold standard in air filtration requires investments in equipment, technology, and training.

Camfil encourages laboratories around the world to have their air filtration systems evaluated and analyzed. Camfil also encourages the industry to commit to innovation and constant improvement to ensure research laboratories are capable of achieving the cleanest air possible. To learn more about air filtration solutions for laboratories or discuss specificair filtration needs and challenges, please contact Camfil today for a consultation.