Something in the air: the charged debate over negative ions

by Masami Ito

Yes, there’s definitely something in the air this year — and it’s not just the regular brew of pollutants and particulates.

It’s negative ions, so-called “vitamins of air” which, according to the advertisers, have seemingly miraculous properties. They’d have us believe they do everything from ensure “ketsueki sarasara (good blood circulation)” to a “smoke-free environment.”

Search under “mainasu ion (minus ion)” on the Net and you’ll be able to take your pick from around 70,000 Web sites in Japanese and 20,000 in English; while switching on TV puts you at great risk of tuning into yet another program on their “magical” effects.

But even the most gullible will realize that, despite this deluge of negative ions, there seems to be no agreement on what they are, or how they do all the wondrous things they’re claimed to do.

Nonetheless, Noboru Horiguchi is in no doubt that negative ions are “the driving force of human life.”

The founder of the National Society of Minus-Ion Therapeutic Medicine, Horiguchi has been studying negative ions for more than 35 years. His first encounter with them, he explains, was while he was looking into the cause of allergies such as asthma and atopic dermatitis.

“I was curious why people seem to get better when they are surrounded by nature in the countryside — and then relapse once they’re back in the city,” he says. “I believed it had something to do with the air.”

After conducting experiments to ascertain why it is that people often feel amazingly relaxed in a deep forest or near a waterfall, he says he found the answer: negative ions in the air.

These, it seems, from the most generally accepted definition, are atmospheric molecules such as carbon dioxide, oxygen, water or nitrogen that are loaded with one electron more than normal. Conversely, positive ions are atmospheric molecules that have lost an electron.

This reaction, called ionization, occurs naturally under the influence of energy from such sources as cosmic rays, lightning, sunlight and even waterfalls. In fact, the discovery of ionization occurring around waterfalls was considered so significant that the phenomenon was named the Lenard Effect after its discoverer, the German scientist Philipp Lenard (1862-1947), who went on to be awarded a Nobel Prize in 1905 for his work on cathode rays.

“That’s why, after a shower, the air is clearer,” says Horiguchi.

An answer to all problems

From being just one of science’s many fascinating phenomena, though, atmospheric negative ions are now apparently becoming the answer to everyone’s health problems, from everyday stress to seikatsu shukan byo (lifestyle-related illnesses such as cancer and hyperlipidemia).

“The standard pH level of a human body is 7.4, which is slightly alkaline,” says Horiguchi. “But this balance is destroyed when too many positive ions go into your body, because they cause oxidation, which raises the acid level.”

According to Horiguchi, and other scientific sources, positive ions are found in profusion in polluted air, electromagnetic waves, cigarette smoke . . . and just about anything you might name that’s bad for health.

“When too many positive ions accumulate, they increase the amount of activated oxygen in the body,” says Horiguchi. “And activated oxygen is believed to be a cause of cancer and other serious sicknesses.”

Surprisingly, though, he says that as much as we apparently benefit from negative ions, we need positive ones as well.

“The important thing here is balance. Like in a balanced diet,” says Horiguchi. “Because positive ions suppress viruses due to their oxidizing effect.”

According to Akiko Sugahara, another researcher in the field of negative ions, the atmospheric ion balance has reversed in the past 100 years. In her book “Mainasu Ion ga Kiku!! (Negative Ions Are Effective!!)” published last month, she says that “according to researchers in the early 20th century, the proportion of positive ions to negative ions was then 1:1.2, but by the end of the century it was 1.2:1.” This is a very disturbing fact, she maintains, “because the ideal balance of positive to negative ions is 1:1.2-1.5.”

In this polluted modern world, perhaps it’s no wonder that so many people have jumped on the bandwagon for negative-ion products.

Emphasizing the negatives

But research scientist Yuko Amo has her doubts. “They say negative ions, but they don’t even know what the chemical structure is,” says the 36-year-old chemical physicist. “A countless number of ‘negative-ion’ products are being sold without any background data to support claims being made for them.”

Amo specializes in research on water, but last year she was asked by a major electronics manufacturer to look into the negative-ion market. The manufacturer was troubled because another mid-sized maker had approached them asking to install a negative-ion generator in their air purifier.

“Their plan was to create negative ions by exposing water to ultrasonic waves to break up the water molecules,” Amo says. “This procedure was based on the Lenard Effect.”

Unfortunately, no matter how hard Amo tried, she could find no evidence supporting the ultrasonic way of making negative ions. On the contrary, she says she found proof that it didn’t.

“Water droplets do not begin to carry an electrical charge just by bursting them,” she says. “You need to subject them to X-rays first to create an ion, and then link the free ions back to the droplets.”

This breaking-water method is one of the three ways that electronics manufacturers use to create negative ions. The other two both involve discharging electricity, but in technically different ways known as “corona” and “pulse” emissions.

There’s a catch, though, which is that both electric-discharge methods emit ozone — which can be a highly toxic gas. It has a strong oxidizing effect and is often used for sterilizing and bleaching. However, as it kills bacteria, at a certain level it is beneficial to human health — though inhaling too much lowers immunity and may increase the risk of contracting illnesses.

Despite this, manufacturers are busily selling negative-ion products relying on electric-discharge methods, claiming they yield “vitamins of air.”

Consumers, too, seem untroubled — but that’s probably because they are uninformed. According to market researchers, although there is no exact data on the size of the market for negative-ion products, there are currently at least 235 on sale, running the gamut from socks to state-of-the-art electronics.

Tokyu Hands in Shinjuku, for instance, has a dedicated negative-ion goods corner. Recently, though, these products have begun popping up in several other sections, too. Although unwilling to reveal precise sales figures, a spokesperson for the store said: “There are just too many products now for us to keep count. Negative-ion goods have spread widely, even to the hairbrush and toothbrush corners.”

For something invisible and utterly intangible, negative ions sure are making themselves felt.

The Japan Consumers Association, a government-approved organization set up in 1961 to test products on behalf of consumers, generally acts in response to complaints or safety concerns. However, an association spokesman said there had so far been no complaints over negative-ion products — and neither had they seen fit to run any tests themselves.

“We haven’t investigated them and, at present, we don’t have plans to either,” the spokesman said. “That is because of the fact that in order to test them, we need data from the manufacturers on their test results. They can’t give it to us because there is no proof.”

That may be the case, but then who is going to look into these goods?

The government? Of course not.

According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, one of their roles is to determine whether a product comes up to standard as a medical device. In order to get ministry approval, a manufacturer must hand over all sorts of data, including the results of appropriate clinical tests.

“Up to now we have not approved any negative-ion product as a medical device,” said ministry official Hideo Eno. “In fact, they don’t even fall under our control because, at this point, we don’t know whether they have any medical effects.”

Although the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry may be phlegmatic on the health front, it can still act if an advertisement claims that a product has some medical effect.

“Claims of medical effects must conform with the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law,” Daisuke Koga, another ministry official confirmed. “The law supervises the expressions used in advertisements of medical and non-medical devices. If the products do not have the approval of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the manufacturers cannot publicize their ‘medical effects.’ “

So why haven’t any negative-ion products been subject to this criterion, when the whole basis of the market is their “healthy” appeal? Well, it’s down to semantics, as a close look at products on the shelves of electronic shops and department stores soon makes clear. Rather than stating that the product has any particular effect, the packaging instead always couches the maker’s claims in phrases like “it is said” or “scientists believe” that negative ions have various effects, such as relieving fatigue, allergies and high cholesterol.

Cutting through confusion

In a bid to allay concerns and clear up the confusion, the Japan Association of Ion Research and Application was founded in February this year. With a membership made up of 63 companies in the negative-ion product business, and 25 scientists, JAIRA’s declared aim is to disclose accurate information on negative ions to prevent any further misunderstanding.

“We realized that many of the claims implicitly being made for negative-ion products are groundless,” said JAIRA executive Junichi Nishimura, who added that “even the number of ions that manufacturers say can be emitted from them is very doubtful.” Nishimura said one fundamental problem is that there is no generally accepted means of measuring this. “If you measure the amount with two different measures, you will get very different answers,” he said, explaining that although all the methods rely on measuring the electrical charges, the rates at which free electrons move around vary in all manner of different conditions.

“Hence if the rate of moving electrons is different at different times, of course you get a different count of ions,” he said.

But that’s not the only fundamental problem. Another, which JAIRA is also focusing on, is that there appears to be no agreement on the optimum amount of ions the human body needs. “That is something that must definitely be made clear,” Nishimura said. “But we won’t know until we have a unified measure, so that is our priority.”

Though that certainly sounds promising, an end to all this confusion may still be way off. In the meantime, consumers are left to the mercy of makers’ advertising strategies and vague claims of scientific proof — though as they shell out with gay abandon on “healthy” negative-ion goods, few nowadays really appear to care.

“It’s not just a scientific issue, it’s a social phenomenon,” says Yasunori Tominaga, a 58-year-old professor of chemical physics at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward. “And it may all be being triggered by the Japanese obsession with cleanliness. Though some of these products claim to kill bacteria, you can’t just kill every germ in sight. Some germs, we must learn to live with.”

He adds: “The important thing with this issue is that nobody is saying they don’t work. We are saying there is not enough proof yet to sell these products. But my feeling is that when the true medical effects are finally proven, no one will want these products anymore.”