Face-to face, Eddie Smith doesn’t match the crotchety, impatient voice message he’d left in an attempt to set up an interview with this newspaper: “If y’all aren’t interested in saving lives, just let me know!”
In person, the tall, 71-year-old, Morgan Freeman lookalike was affable but intense. Armed with a thick, overstuffed, black binder and his 8-page resume, Smith came determined to show how his 44 years as a heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) engineer could be utilized in the fight against the COVID-19.
The battle has become personal for Smith. He contracted the virus in late March. After surviving more than two months in a coma, in isolation and rehab, he returned to his home in Berkeley with a new purpose. With a shy smile and a shrug of his shoulders, Smith explained his previous gruff message: “I just have all this knowledge and I’m trying to pass it on.”
Indeed. Smith, a Kinloch resident, graduated from Lincoln University in 1967 with a Bachelor of Science degree in building, engineering, and design. After graduating from Lincoln, Smith said, he was one of the first three African-American affirmative action hires at Carter Carburetor. There, his primary responsibility was designing and testing carburetors. Smith earned an additional Associate of Applied Science degree in mechanical engineering technology from St. Louis Community College. It was at his next job, at Monsanto, where he started doing piping and duct work.
Smith designs HVAC systems. He maps out the design, installation, and maintenance for building systems. His time at various jobs over the years have ranged from a few months to a few years. A bachelor, Smith also has worked in Texas, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Tennessee, California, Washington, New Mexico, and other states. He started his own firm, Smith Design Group, in 1993.
Smith retired in 2010 but that only lasted three months. Still in demand, he interviewed for five jobs early this year. He had accepted one on March 23, but three days later, Smith said, he was “over at DePaul Hospital suffocating.”
He had chills, but no fever or cough, for days before driving himself to the hospital. Everything after that was a blur, Smith recalled. Apparently, he passed out after entering the emergency department. Other than a series of weird and vivid dreams, Smith said, he remembers nothing. He awoke, after 36 days, in a hospital room during a Zoom meeting with doctors and his only daughter, Latacia Joy Smith.
“She told me later that the doctors were discussing disconnecting me from the ventilator. But I had already told her, ‘You don’t let them disconnect me. If I still have brain activity, then just let me go head-on and do what I’m doing.’”
Latacia had told Eddie she rejected previous requests to take him off life support. During the Zoom meeting, she told Eddie, when he woke up and gave her the thumbs-up sign, she was happy she heeded his advice.
After his brush with death, Eddie officially retired. Or so he thought. As schools were preparing to open, Eddie said, his 16-year-old grandson, Phoenix, who is part of his school’s band, expressed dire concerns. “I love band,” the boy told his grandfather, “but I do not want to die.”
Phoenix’s comments increased Eddie’s anxieties about what he calls “sick buildings” and the possibility that air-conditioning systems within them might spread the new coronavirus. Initially, both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discounted the possibility of the virus spreading via airborne particles. But, after hundreds of scientists and engineers sent letters demanding the organizations change their positions, WHO decided not to officially rule out the possibility that aerosol transmissions may spread through HVAC systems.
Researchers know that other infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, influenza and SARS have spread through air conditioning systems. But, to date, there have been only a few published studies on COVID’s transmission through ventilation systems.
What is known is that HVAC systems bring in outdoor air and send out indoor air. The recirculation of air, in theory, could spread viral aerosol particles from one space to another. Researchers in one Oregon study tested this theory. Samples of genetic material from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, were collected and placed inside an HVAC system. The results of the demonstration, the researchers said, confirms that particles from the virus can indeed be transmitted through HVAC systems.
Smith’s thick, black binder is filled with research, articles, and his recommendations to heal “sick buildings.” Suggestions include regulating airflow, running systems 24/7 to recirculate air and reduce contamination in buildings and facilities, increasing the use of ultraviolet germicidal air disinfection units, installing ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) lights as another precautionary disinfectant and much, much more.
Smith also notes that most commercial building systems use standard high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. These filters remove 99.7 percent of particles rated 0.3 microns and above. Since there’s no guarantee these filters will stop a new coronavirus particle, which is about 0.1 microns, Smith recommends the installation of new minimum-efficiency reporting value (MERV) filters that that capture particles below and above the standard 0.3-micron level in all buildings.
Scientists and researchers focus solely on protecting the physical body, Smith said. His expertise, as an engineer, is a bit different. “You have all kinds of multi-systems in your body,” he said. “I’m the system engineer who comes in and puts the multiple systems in a building that make sure they work correctly.”
Smith said he’s not out to make money off his research and recommendations, even though he admits he wouldn’t turn down such offers. Any HVAC engineer worth their salt, he said, can serve as an asset in researching the dangers of COVID spreading through air conditioning systems.
For Smith though, there’s a nettlesome problem. “When you look at me, what do you see?” Smith said. “You see an old man with gray hair. I have all this knowledge but nobody’s listening.”
Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.