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UO researchers mint a fresh discovery about the spread of disease

Fretz said a variety of mints were used in the study, but that Mentos were the most common.
Jeremy Dorrough
Fretz said a variety of mints were used in the study, but that Mentos were the most common.

Researchers at the University of Oregon used a sweet technique to learn how viruses spread indoors. Don’t hold your breath: It involves mints.

The UO’s Institute for Health in the Built Environment focuses on designing healthier buildings. Researchers there wanted to learn why so many COVID-19 super-spreader events happened when people were inside, even when they were more than six feet apart.

Mark Fretz is the interim director. He told KLCC they chose breath mints because they’re safe to have in a person’s mouth and, “Because we thought that they would be fairly unique in terms of the VOC profile, that we could recognize those from other compounds that an individual might exhale, or compounds that you would find in a room.”

VOC is short for volatile organic compound, and refers to bio-aerosols that spread from a person's mouth into a room. Mints have unique chemicals like monoterpenes and menthol that are easily detected.

The researchers learned exhaled compounds become more concentrated in a room over time. So social distancing is less effective after roughly 25 minutes.

Future studies might apply to schools or hospitals. Fretz said using mints was a big win. It simulates the spread of disease without having an infected person in the room.

You can read more about the study here, and you can see the published paper here.

Karen Richards joined KLCC as a volunteer reporter in 2012, and became a freelance reporter at the station in 2015. In addition to news reporting, she’s contributed to several feature series for the station, earning multiple awards for her reporting.