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Earth Journal




Is my Air conditioner killing me?

Air conditioning health problems & benefits

An AC is increasing a necessity that many of us can’t bear to live without it, but even so, cool air is a modern luxury that sometimes seems to puzzle people out. 

“Air conditioning is more of newcomer in the climate-controlled front. Forms of heating were available long before we had air conditioning,” says 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. 

As research suggests, badly designed AC systems, whether it's in your home or office or vehicle, can become contaminated and potentially harmful. Prolonged exposure to such environments can have serious health risks. A study of the health effects of air conditioning systems conducted by Dr. Mark Mendell supported U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, shows worsening asthma problems and allergies are two health issues that can stem from contaminated AC units. He also mentions an ominous-sounding phenomenon: sick building syndrome. “

“People in office buildings started saying the building was making them sick.”

We started seeing it in the 70s and 80s,” Mendell says. “People in office buildings started saying the building was making them sick.” He says sick building syndrome was associated with a range of seemingly unrelated symptoms: nasal congestion, breathing problems, headaches, fatigue and irritated skin. His own research has linked AC systems in homes or office buildings to many of those same symptoms. “The most likely explanation is that there may be some microorganisms growing in the system that may have some subtle effect on certain people,” Mendell says. “But it’s not clear how many people are sensitive to this or how big of a problem it is.”

Unlike heating systems, the process of cooling hot air creates a lot of moisture and condensation, which must be channeled away, Mendell explains. If your AC system does a bad job of this, whether due to poor maintenance, damage or shoddy design, it can become a breeding ground for bacteria and fungi. However, AC systems are crucial to survive heat waves and heavily polluted environments. In such extreme conditions the benefits of AC outweigh the risks, but in residential and non-congested areas the perspective can be different.

What isn’t in doubt, though, is air conditioning’s very real and harmful impact on the planet. Increasing global temperatures and heat waves in summer are resulting in AC becoming a big contributor to the accumulation of harmful greenhouse gasses. Dr.Cox  takes issue with what he calls our “lavish” use of any climate control conveniences. Setting our thermostats a bit higher in summer and a little lower in winter would benefit the environment without affecting anyone’s health, he says.


In fact, a little thermal discomfort could 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. So if you can cut out the AC and switch to optimal thermal comfort, your body will often acclimate to temperatures you found unpleasant at first—and easing up a bit on the AC will make the planet thank you, too.

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