Trump Megachurch Went Too Far With COVID-19 Air-Purification Claims, Company Now Admits

The Phoenix megachurch where Trump spoke on Tuesday and an Arizona company associated with the church have backed off claims that its air-purification system makes the church "safe" from COVID-19.

Luke Barnett and Brendon Zastrow of Dream City Church had touted the system by Clean Air EXP in a video posted Sunday on social media, saying that at the church's auditorium, which seats 3,000, "99 percent of COVID is gone... So you can know when you come down here, you'll be safe and protected."

Following widespread public skepticism of this claim, Tim Bender, CEO of Clean Air EXP, told Phoenix New Times in a statement on June 22 that "confusion" had been caused by "claims made by one of our customers around our laboratory testing." But he declined to be interviewed for this article to discuss additional claims made on Clean Air EXP's website that added to the confusion.

Bender told NBC News that the system doesn't protect people against "coughs and sneezes," and he explained that product tests had been conducted with coronavirus surrogates, such as the virus that causes the common cold.

Those comments stand in stark contrast to the statements about the safety of visitors at Dream City Church made by Barnett, the church's senior pastor, and Zastrow, the chief operations officer.

"It was a technology developed by some members of our church," Zastrow, the church's chief operations officer, said in the video. "And it kills 99 percent of COVID within 10 minutes."

On Tuesday, the church posted a "clarification" on its website: "We made a post for our congregation to inform them we are doing everything we can to foster the cleanest, safest environment as we resume church services. We have heard Coronavirus and COVID used interchangeably. Our statement regarding the CleanAir EXP units used the word COVID when we should have said Coronavirus or COVID surrogates."

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An air-purification by Clean Air EXP / IONaer
Trump's rally was an apparent success, with most of the auditorium's seats filled with supporters. As observers of video from inside Dream City Church noted prolifically on social media, few people in the crowd wore face masks.

According to Bender and other experts in the field, the air-purifying system isn't effective when people are close to each other.

Clean Air EXP sells a system called the IONaer 7000, which works primarily through ionization of the air. Ionizing, a technology that's been around for decades, uses electricity to change the electric charge of air molecules, turning them into little magnets that clump together and settle to a surface where they can't be breathed. As Clean Air EXP's website says, the company installs its circular air-purifiers in homes and commercial buildings. Electronic monitors check for particulates and turn on the ionizer when needed.

Bender's LinkedIn page shows he got his start in direct-mail services before switching to the air-purification industry in 2005, when he founded a company called Aerisa. However, a 2008 online article states that a company called IONz International was "rebranding" as Aerisa, and Bender is quoted as the CEO of Aerisa.

Court records show that Bender filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2009, listing Aerisa as a creditor. That company continues today, owned by PerformanceEdge Partners in Scottsdale. The LinkedIn site shows Bender listed as the "self-employed" CEO of Clean Air EXP since 2015. But Clean Air EXP represents IONaer International, a company where Bender works as Chief Strategy Officer and is described in a 2017 press release as "one of the pioneers who brought ionization technology to the United States from Europe in the early 2000’s."

The Chief Operations Officer of IONaer International is Perry Pauley, a Dream City Church foundation board member. In their video, church representatives Barnett and Zastrow indicated the system they installed had been "developed by church members."

Before the Trump visit, Clean Air EXP invited visitors to its website to read its "COVID-19 REPORT." The web blurb also stated, "Lab tests confirm that CleanAir EXP eliminates 99.9% of coronavirus from the air in less than 10 minutes.*"

The asterisked footnote stated, in smaller type, "* Biosafety lab analysis performed on active coronavirus 229E test surrogate."

This messaging misrepresented the facts: There was no COVID-19 report because the company's reports on its products didn't address COVID-19 directly. (COVID-19 is the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2). Also, product test results released by the company this week show the studies did not use coronavirus 229E, one of the germs responsible for the common cold, in its air testing.

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Luke Barnett and Brendon Zastrow of Dream City Church
After the crush of media calls on Monday related to the church's video and Trump's visit, Clean Air EXP changed its message, calling its report a "COVID-19 Surrogate" test report. It states that tests were "performed on active Coronavirus 229E and Cystovirus Phi6 test surrogates," and that "Lab tests confirm that CleanAir EXP eliminates 99.9% of coronavirus surrogate from the air in less than 10 minutes."

“We understand there is recent confusion around the claims made by one of our customers around our laboratory testing," Bender stated in an email this week following critical news articles. "We’re at the forefront of air and surface purification testing and technology — we tested with a third-party Certified Biosafety Laboratory on the best coronavirus surrogates available (Coronavirus 229E and Cystovirus Phi6) and found our patented technology leads to a 99.9% elimination of airborne coronavirus surrogates. We do not, however, eliminate COVID-19 at this time."

As the studies released by IONaer/Clean Air EXP show, the coronavirus 229E surrogate was used only for surface testing. The cystovirus and bacteria including e coli, which can be produced in higher concentrations for aerosol testing than coronavirus 229E, were used for the aerosol tests.

The studies, including those conducted in March and April by the University of Arizona's WEST Center and Crem Co in Ontario, Canada, seem to indicate the IONaer 7000 works pretty well to reduce particulates and germs.

Baram Zarhar, CEO of Crem Co, said his team has been working long hours since pandemic began, testing myriad products whose developers hope can mitigate the novel coronavirus.

"Many technologies come here — we'll tell them if it's not effective," he said. "There are many good technologies."

Referring to the reports at New Times' request, Zarhar noted that in the air tests, the IONaer 7000 "did a good job."

Yet he cautioned that the studies only show how viruses like the novel coronavirus would be removed in the precise, controlled conditions of a lab. The statements by the Dream City Church leaders show a "lack of knowledge" about the capabilities of the air system. Even under the best of circumstances, the device would useful for cleaning before people came to an auditorium or after they left, not protecting a crowd indoors.

Zarhar said it was "unfortunate" that many of the people packed into the church on Tuesday for Trump's speech weren't wearing masks.

"It's not a good idea to not wear masks," he said. "If you installed the best device in the world, if someone who's infected steps into the church, definitely other people can be infected."
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.