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Air conditioning, a pleasure or a burden?

Air conditioning makes stifling hot weather bearable but how good is it for us? Is it harmless or can it have unfortunate side effects?   2016-06-19

For many, especially those who live or spend time in a hot climate, the thought of existence without an air conditioning unit is out of the question. A taste of life in sweltering temperatures without air conditioning was experienced in London in July 2015 when temperatures reached 35C. It was reported that the temperatures in some tube trains exceeded the legal limit for transporting cattle.

According to Public Health England, the summer August 2003 heatwave resulted in 15,000 excess deaths in Northern France. The vast majority of these were among older people. In England that year, there were over 2,000 excess deaths over the 10 day heatwave period which lasted from 4 to 13 August 2003. According to the US based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ICDC), "air-conditioning is the number one protective factor against heat-related illness and death”.

Enhances physical & intellectual activity

Other than simply making the summer bearable, air conditioning has the following benefits:

  • An unfortunate side-effect of summer heat is the presence of parasites in our home. Air conditioning solves this problem without us having to fumigate our homes.
  • Heat has a negative influence on intellectual and physical productivity. This is evidenced by the well-known Spanish siesta. Since it is very difficult to work under conditions of extreme heat, people just went to sleep during the hot hours, extending the working day into the early hours of the cooler evenings. Air conditioning counters the fatiguing effects of the summer heat. By reducing heat levels it has a positive effect on job performance; increases comfort levels and helps physical and intellectual activity.
  • Air conditioned shopping centres allow people to shop and spend their leisure time in comfort, encouraging economic activity.
  • A clean air conditioning system excludes allergens such as pollen from our indoor environment.

Like many other inventions that have transformed our lives beyond recognition air conditioning comes with a price tag.

Sick Building Syndrome

The symptoms that are now known as Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) were first noted in the 1970’s when occupants of buildings that had been air tightened to conserve energy, complained of symptoms that seemed to be connected to time spent in the building. The term Sick Building Syndrome was coined by the World Health Organisation in 1986.

SBS is diagnosed when symptoms are associated with being in a specific building and disappear away from the building. The diagnosis is reinforced if colleagues or other workers from the same building, also experience similar symptoms in the same circumstances. According to Allergy UK, SBS will only be diagnosed if other causes such as mould and dust within the building can be excluded. Skin conditions for example, could potentially be caused by sensitivity to office plants or even to fibreglass.

Symptoms of SBS

The symptoms of SBS may include:

  • Fatigue or lethargy
  • Aches and pains
  • Nausea
  • Dry or itchy skin
  • Dry or itchy eyes
  • Headaches and dizziness
  • Irritability
  • Nose, chest or throat irritation

Not a recognised illness

According to the Health and Safety Executive, it is not known what causes SBS although there are many factors which are thought to contribute to the development of the symptoms. It is also not a recognised illness and cannot be diagnosed precisely. SBS is just a term that was coined "to describe a particular phenomenon".

Anybody can be affected by SBS but workers in office buildings with poor natural ventilation are most at risk. If you feel that your work environment is making you ill, speak to your colleagues about it. If others have the same problem speak to your employer or office manager.

Many modern office buildings are in fact a giant greenhouse, a concrete skeleton padded with glass. Often windows can hardly open and occupants depend on artificial ventilation for clean air. According to a study published in the Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, malfunctioning heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems (HVAC systems) may be one of the factors that increase indoor air pollution, triggering SBS. Other suspected causes are thought to include chemical or biological pollutants, inadequate ventilation, hygiene and cleaning and more.

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Air conditioning makes me ill

We often hear the comment that "air conditioning makes me ill". Is there any truth or accuracy in this statement?

Air conditioning involves exposing ourselves to extreme temperatures, from scorching heat outside to often cold or even frosty indoors. Can sudden differences in temperature affect our body?

Speaking to the Wall Street Journal in August 2013, Professor Ron Eccles director of the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University in Wales explained that when we are suddenly exposed to cold temperatures after being in the summer heat, the body "will do whatever it can to defend itself against chilling". Instinctively, blood vessels constrict and we start shivering. This has the effect of raising body temperature by generating heat. When blood vessels, including the white blood cells that typically fight bacteria and viruses, constrict in the nose and throat, blood flow is reduced. This allows the bacteria and viruses to develop into a fully blown cold.

If we are sweating or in moist sweaty clothes the moisture keeps the body cold for longer making it harder for the body to warm up. This increases the chance of getting a cold. Professor Eccles explains that the walking into an air conditioned building with sweaty clothes could feel like "diving into an ice-cold swimming pool". His advice is that you should sit in the shade for a while to get some of the perspiration to evaporate. You should also keep a sweater or in the office to ease the transition from heat to cold.

Prof. Eccles emphasizes however that a cold won't develop unless the bacteria or virus is already present in the body.

Have a green home

Like many other aspects of modern life, many of us have no choice but to use air conditioning. In previous generations buildings were built of materials that were best suited to help the occupants cope with local weather conditions and to make the most of natural ventilation. Nowadays our concrete homes and glass padded offices trap heat, making air conditioning essential. If you do feel however that air conditioning 'makes you ill', you might prefer a 'green home':

So if you want to cool your home naturally, how do go about it?

Create a breeze

Open doors and windows throughout the house to create air flow. This is particularly effective in the evening when it is cooler outside. Use an electric fan to create airflow. A ceiling fan uses 100w of electricity as opposed to the 1-2kw used by an air conditioning unit.


Shade the windows that are exposed to sunlight. If you live in a house with your own garden, a tree outside the window will provide natural shade and keep indoor temperatures down.

Electrical appliances

All electrical appliances generate heat. Try to do the washing and cooking in the cooler evening hours. Even computers and mobile and laptop chargers generate heat and will counteract your attempts to cool down your home. Disconnect them if not in use.

Protect you home from heat

How did ancient generations in hot lands protect themselves from heat? A visit to any traditional unchanged Spanish or Greek village will reveal how. All houses are whitewashed. Light colours deflect heat. If possible white wash the external walls of your house. This will deflect the heat and prevent them from absorbing and retaining warmth.

Like with other modern conveniences, air conditioning is here to stay so the point is to use it wisely and healthily.