With summer here and the heat outside getting unbearable- I know I am melting as this heat rises- many of us will head inside to our air conditioned homes, or be thankful to the office gods for the air conditioner working, but is our air-conditioning affecting our health?
From dry-skin to colds and flu in the middle of summer with those of us wheezing outside due to hayfever finding inside just as bad, is it down to the air-conditioner? According to a study in the International Journal of Epidemiology, occupants of air-conditioned office buildings reported more symptoms of ill health than those who worked in buildings with natural ventilation.
Air Conditioning and Health: Poor Maintenance
However many Doctors point out this might not be a simple case of the AC being at fault but rather poor maintenance, “If you have a badly maintained or badly designed AC system, whether it’s in your home or office or vehicle, it can become contaminated and potentially harmful,” says Dr. Mark Mendell, an epidemiologist with the California Department of Public Health.
Mendell studied the health effects of air conditioning systems while with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He says worsening asthma problems and allergies are two health issues that can stem from contaminated AC units. Air conditioners which are industrial and water based are also known to circulate air-borne diseases such as Legionairre’s Disease, a potentially fatal infectious disease that produces high fever and pneumonia.
“AC systems are susceptible to collect infectious organisms and allergens, such as dust mites,” added Dr. Wassim Labaki, a professor of internal medicine and pulmonologist at Michigan Medicine. “Therefore, the proper maintenance of these systems, including regular filter change, is essential to prevent circulation of unhealthy air.”
Your car’s AC may be a saving grace while stuck in traffic on a hot day but they are the worst offenders for circulating germs and microorganisms that cause breathing problems. Researchers at Louisiana State Medical Center found eight types of mould living inside 22 out of 25 cars tested.
So as long as the office manager is doing their job and you follow the instructions on your hoe appliance by making sure all the lovely grotty stuff is cleaned out of the ducts and serviced regularly then the ac might not be directly to blame for that cold that’s got you through the office tissue supply.
Air Conditioning and Health: Heat Extremes
You know the other issue that might affect with Air-conditioning is the change in heat extremes, like when you go from the sweltering outdoors into your freezing office — does that have any health ramifications? We know not to go out in the snow without wrapping up warm but does it work the other way coming in from the heat to the cool interior? The summer constant fatigue and general feeling of wanderlust can be contributed to this.
“Human performance in office-like work is maximized when temperatures are maintained at about 71 [degrees Fahrenheit] plus or minus a degree or two,” says William Fisk, leader of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Indoor Environment Group.That might be the reason you are so tired. “Research shows that people who work in air-conditioned environments may experience chronic headaches due to the amount of energy our body spends trying to regulate the temperature change” according to Dr. Stan Cox, senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, and author of Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World.
A little thermal discomfort could also be good for you. People tend to eat more and gain more weight when the temperature is perfectly cozy, Cox says. “When we’re a little cold or a little warm, our metabolism runs faster,” he says. Research backs him up: One recent study found exposure to cold temps—enough to make you shiver—may increase your body’s stores of healthy, energy-burning brown fat, meaning that arctic temperature of the office may lead to your body burning a few extra calories- and who doesn’t want that?
For some people with nasal allergies or sinus issues, though, the change in temperature or humidity can irritate their nasal membranes, Dr. Clifford Bassett, MD, founder and medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York, author of The New Allergy Solution says so may be another cause to have you reaching for the tissues and using sick days.
Air Conditioning and Health: Benefits
However AC has been firmly linked to many health benefits as well. Outdoor air pollution is common in urban environments, in heavy traffic is just one example. AC filters out the particles in outdoor pollutants.
Denisa Ferastraoaru, MD, attending physician, Allergy and Immunology, Montefiore Health System; says that this has had substantial health benefits to those with allergies and respiratory problems in urban areas. Dr. Mark Aronica, an allergist-immunologist at the Cleveland Clinic, agrees “For patients with allergies and other underlying respiratory diseases such as COPD/Emphysema, staying indoors with the air conditioner on and the windows closed, reduces exposure to outside pollens and pollutants,”
“Exposure to airborne pollution particles can raise your risk for hospital admissions and premature death due to cardiovascular issues,” says Dr. Michelle Bell, a professor of environmental health at Yale University. Bell’s research found the use of well-maintained AC use lowered a person’s risk for these health complications. “Use of central air conditioning causes less outdoor air pollution to penetrate indoors compared to open windows,” she says. William Fisk, leader of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Indoor Environment Group “AC can be expected to reduce the risk of heat stroke and heat-related death during heat waves, which are becoming more common with climate change,” Fisk said. “AC also enables windows to be maintained closed and AC systems usually contain filters that remove particles from the circulated air. With AC and closed windows, indoor concentrations of outdoor air pollutants such as particles, ozone and allergens are decreased.”
“In fact, if you’re someone who has indoor allergies, having A/C could actually help filter out some of the pollen, mold, and pollution that’s in the air, which could make your symptoms more tolerable” says Dr. Bassett.
Air-conditioners can also help decrease the humidity in the air, which can be helpful for people who have asthma or mold allergies. “In the summer, humidity can be problematic for some people,” he says. But again, you have to actually clean your A/C so you don’t grow more mold, according to the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America.
But what about the extreme temperature change? People with other chronic medical problems, such as diabetes or a spinal injury, or who take certain medications might also not be able to adjust to the temperature fluctuations as easily, Dr. Ferastraoaru says so having a constant setting on your AC may benefit them if they are inside for lengths of time however this may have an adverse effect if they are constantly going in and out of heat extreme environments. Which just means stay indoors in the cool or in the shade outside and definately do the summer shopping in a larger store to help with heat regulating.
Air-conditioning is not all out bad for you, and in some cases it could actually be good for you to have around. According to all the doctors air-conditioning is the number one protective factor against heat-related illnesses and death, so it’s not something you should skimp on if you have access and can afford it. Intense heat is more than just an annoying environmental factor you have to deal with in the summer, and it can impact your health in serious ways. So, go ahead and crank your A/C till the end of summer — it’s cool.