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Every Erie County classroom will have an air filter when school starts, thanks to a Buffalo company

Austin Air President Lauren McMillan holds one of the company's HEPA filters
Mike Desmond
Austin Air President Lauren McMillan holds one of the company's HEPA filters

When students across Erie County walk into school in the coming days, they will be meeting another piece of technology in their classrooms. It will be an air filter unit that was made right on Elk Street in Buffalo.

Using federal dollars, Erie County bought 12,500 of the machines from Austin Air Systems for every classroom in the county.

Austin Air President Lauren McMillan said success in the classroom may lead to more of the machines in homes.

“We've been doing this since 1990. Clean air is very important to us. We know the benefits of it, less respiratory illness, less absenteeism from work and school, improved test scores, Math and English, when you have an air purifier in the classroom. It's well documented," McMillan said. "So, I hope that people think they should have that at home.”

The American-made product is well-known enough that McMillan said Austin Air has sold 250,000 of them since the Pandemic started. Before that, she said it was mostly for the home.

"People with asthma, allergies, COPD, multiple-chemical sensitivity, those are the people who were our main customers," she said. "They really had a problem, a respiratory issue that they had to solve, we were there to solve that.”

People were aware of the devices, with McMillan saying it wasn’t unusual for people getting a newly-built home to buy one of the machines, plug it in inside the new home, walk away and let it run for a few days to suck up the chemicals of a new home and cleanse the air.

The late Richard Taylor developed the machine and its combination of HEPA filter and activated carbon because his wife Joyce had breathing problems. He started selling the machines commercially in 1990.

An Austin Air worker puts activated carbon into a filter Aug. 25, 2022. There’s 15 pounds of activated carbon in every filter.

McMillan said the dual filters are the key to the machine, with HEPA dealing with viruses like COVID and other living contaminants.

“The second set of really tough things to deal with are chemicals. Chemicals, VOCs, gases, those are respiratory nightmares for people who have allergies, asthma, who have those sensitivities," she said. "So, the carbon actually takes those items out of the air.”

The machines come out of a building on Elk, once a production plant for the old Trico company and many of the machines in the plant were once used by other companies not around anymore. Austin Air has 80 production workers who put everything together.

“All the pieces go together. The presses up and down," McMillan said. "Same things come out, over and over again. We put 'em on the paint line. Paint 'em. Assemble 'em. Fill the filters. We put 'em together.”

The plant can produce one thousand of the machines a day. McMillan said the company staffed up somewhat last year and pays well.

“We definitely do have to pay well to keep them and we're trying to have them be the top tier employees," she said. "We start about 18 bucks an hour and we go up to 25 in the production facility. We have increased that over the last two years and we probably will have to do another increase very soon.”

It’s pretty basic, McMillan said: plug the machine in and after five years, change the filters.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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