“Counterpart” predicted UV hand disinfectants. Reality is a little different.

It never ceases to amaze me how many movies foresaw an uncontrolled global pandemic as the future natural disaster, par excellence. It’s not just the realm of deadly plague porn. The zombie apocalypse. The vampire apocalypse. Hell, you name the apocalypse and you can bank on a virus being there. You can also add post-pandemic, pre-apocalypse parallel universes to that mix. We’re talking about the two-season wonder series Counterpart.

For those of you who haven’t seen any of Counterpart, the general premise of the series hinges on the well-worn sci-fi trope of parallel universes. In this case, some of the inhabitants of each reality are aware of each other’s existence and keep their exchanges to a high-level diplomatic minimum.

There are tensions between the two worlds that are prevented from spilling over by the single point of passage between the realities. The “other” world, in particular, holds a festering animosity against its counterpart. It is a widely held belief in the “other” world that the first world was responsible for a devastating influenza pandemic that decimated their population. Indeed, the post-pandemic world’s post-pandemic mitigation measures serve as a key feature in the narrative that distinguishes one world from the other.

The streets in the “other” world only have a smattering of pedestrians. Malls are empty (how they manage to stay open without foot traffic is anyone? Nobody shakes hands or hugs. It’s not only frowned upon, it’s forbidden. Ubiquitous billboards warn that infections must be reported, implying that failure to do so is a punishable offense.There doesn’t appear to be any formal social distancing but it’s hard to tell because there’s hardly a soul walking the street. Overall, it’s a world that makes a lot of sense to us in the COVID-19 world.

One element of this imagined world that appears futuristic are the UV hand disinfection stations in theater entrances and even at crosswalks outside. The devices resemble oversized nail polish dryers. On the surface, it makes sense. UV light kills germs so why not have a a gadget you shove your hands into for a couple of seconds 

But how realistic is it?

Turns out, not very.

Ultraviolet light comes within well a well defined range. According to the CDC, “The wavelength of UV radiation ranges from 328 nm to 210 nm (3280 A to 2100 A). Its maximum bactericidal effect occurs at 240–280 nm. Mercury vapor lamps emit more than 90% of their radiation at 253.7 nm, which is near the maximum microbicidal activity.”

UV technology has been around for a long time. For a UV disinfectant device to be effective there are numerous variables that need to be just right. They include organic matter on the surface needing to be disinfected; the wavelength of the UV tube; type of suspension; ambient temperature; the type of microorganism being killed; and UV intensity, which is affected by distance and dirty tubes. Clearly, real life technology is a far cry from stick your hand under the pretty light and let’r rip.

For the most part, UV has been used to disinfect hard surfaces or the air in rooms with nobody in them. They’ve never been used on humans except under experimental conditions and for good reason. An article by the Skin Cancer Foundation sums up just how out-of-the-question human use of UV disinfectant devices are. 

“Handheld and other small UVC disinfectant lamps or ‘wands’ are available for purchase online and may be effective at killing germs on surfaces such as counters, doorknobs and cellphones. ‘I cannot stress enough that these specifically designed UVC light sources are not safe for use on humans or pets,’ Dr. Wang says. ‘You could be risking your life to use these devices like that.’”

So that just about puts an end to that conversation and one aspect of post-pandemic Counterpart.


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