flickr/Ricardo Faria

The Appeal of Hot Air

In trying to separate fact from fiction, writer Natalie Jacewicz gets caught up in a century-old, pseudoscientific web of lies and false hope.

I thought discrediting the scientifically dubious claims of ozone therapy would be simple—like proving leprechauns can’t help refinance your home. The online market offers a vast menu of bogus products crafted for varied consumer demographics. Those who covet trendy tech can order an ozone-spa bath mat to clean their tub’s water and purify their blood; those who favor homeopathy over conventional medicine may purchase an ozone generator to clean a home’s air and boost their own health. The market also caters to the desperate: a family may travel halfway around the globe to treat a child’s brain tumor with unproven ozone therapy after other methods fail.

Though I harbor no animus toward conventional science, I learned about ozone therapy through its homeopathic wing. After meeting a couple of people who use salt lamps to clean the air in their homes, I began researching the supposedly therapeutic effects of Himalayan salt. (Initial research suggests these lamps are ineffective but harmless.)  Then, through the gentle nudge of suggested searches, the Internet introduced me to the scientifically flimsy world of ozone therapy.

The field seemed ripe for debunking, and I set out to write an article to do just that. But almost a month into research, I began to wonder if I had it all wrong.

I’d come across multiple claims that ozone could disinfect wounds and had been used to do so during World War I. The historical claim was unnervingly specific, yet modest enough to seem plausible. If army doctors had used the treatment, maybe it was effective. I was beginning to believe in leprechauns.

Ozone is a gas composed of three oxygen atoms. It smells clean, like chlorine. (Know how you can smell a storm coming? That’s ozone.) Although the ozone layer protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, ozone itself is toxic to humans and exposure to the gas can cause asthma and other respiratory problems.

The gas was formally identified in the 1800s, and scientists soon discovered signs it was dangerous; small animals died if overexposed to ozone. Nevertheless, some scientists and entrepreneurs believed ozone might have healthful benefits. After all, how could a fresh-smelling, oxygen-based gas be a pollutant? That thinking endures. Today shoppers can order ozonized oils online, reserve ozone-enriched baths at specialized spas, and book appointments for ozone blood infusions at naturopathic clinics. Ozone pushers claim the miracle gas can help with everything from allergies to AIDS.

Ozone inhalation.jpg

An illustration of ozone inhalation from "Principles of electro-medicine, electro-surgery and radiology: a practical treatise for students and practioners, with chapters on mechanical vibration and blood pressure technique," ca. 1917.

An illustration of ozone inhalation from "Principles of electro-medicine, electro-surgery and radiology: a practical treatise for students and practioners, with chapters on mechanical vibration and blood pressure technique," ca. 1917.

flickr/International Archive Book Images

When I started my search, discrediting ozone’s curative properties seemed straightforward. The EPA refers to ozone as a pollutant, as does the American Lung Association. An FDA spokesperson told me in an e-mail that the agency has not approved any ozone-related device for treating diseases. Case closed.

But I wasn’t prepared for ozone-peddling websites to seem so scientific. Merchants cite academic papers, advertise international conferences, and tout ozone therapy’s pedigree. One spa claims, “Ozone was first used in WWI to sterilize battle wounds. We learned then that it kills all manner of pathogens—in fact, every pathogen known to mankind is destroyed upon contact with ozone, including the cancer cell.” The article then claims more than 3,000 studies have documented the efficacy of ozone therapy. No citation is provided.

I saw the World War I claim so many times that I began to accept it and even began theorizing about how ozone might safely clean an injury. The websites didn’t need to offer detailed explanations of how ozone therapy worked; my imagination was doing the work for them.

Then I found that in 2015 the FDA had approved ozone generators for sanitizing dental equipment. (Because ozone is highly reactive, it interacts with bacterial cell walls, breaks them down, and kills bacteria.) Cleaning wounds was tantalizingly close to an FDA-approved use of the gas.

So I started investigating the source of the World War I information. Following references on ozone therapy sites is like trying to untangle the wires behind a television set: They’re all connected to one another in roundabout, migraine-inducing ways. One reference leads to another ozone site, which leads to another, which eventually leads to a site with no references at all. The search exhausts the skeptic into belief.

I emailed historians of science, but none knew about the use of ozone during World War I. I searched in vain for surgeons who use ozone today. That’s the thing about fields that don’t exist: people tend not to specialize in them.

Finally, I found some citations that seemed to lead to the same source: a scholarly article called “Ozone Therapy: A Clinical Review,” published in the Journal of Natural Science, Biology and Medicine. The article had the trimmings of a rigorous scientific paper, and it cited World War I as an early use of ozone. The paper also championed ozone therapy as “proven, consistent, and safe.” I was shocked. I had set out expecting to dismantle an online myth and discovered a legitimate use of ozone therapy.

But then I looked at the review’s reference for the World War I claim. It was a paper from 1902 that made no reference to the World War I, probably because the war hadn’t occurred yet. I emailed the author of “Ozone Therapy” to ask about the citation. He thanked me for pointing out the error and sent me two sources for the claim. The first source provided no citation; the second source cited the first.

I eventually did find evidence that ozone was used to clean wounds during World War I, thanks to help from a historian at the Army Medical Department Board. It seems ozone was one of a slew of different treatments tried by desperate doctors, and one that was discarded for more effective treatments. I also double-checked ozone’s wound-cleaning efficacy with Britt Marie Hermes, a former naturopathic doctor who now works to dispel health myths. She said the same properties that make ozone gas effective at killing pathogens make ozone effective at killing healthy cells.

My newfound faith in ozone evaporated.

But I continued my research with fresh respect for the scam and sympathy for those conned by modern snake-oil salesmen. I had approached the subject as a skeptical science writer with a biology degree and no ailment to make me desperate. Yet for a brief moment, I believed in a miracle cure.

Delve deeper into the history of ozone therapy in the Spring 2017 issue of Distillations magazine.

Natalie Jacewicz

is a freelance science writer based in New York City.