Ask an expert: Should I worry about breathing air-conditioned air all summer long?

Air quality expert and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute scientist Dr. Karen Bartlett explains how air conditioning affects our health.

Q: My office runs air conditioning all summer. Should I worry about breathing air-conditioned air all day?
In a system that is well maintained and clean, there should be no health concerns. In fact, properly air conditioned spaces lead to increased productivity and energy levels. If a workplace is too hot, people can’t function well. The only reason for concern would be if a system were not kept clean. Since air is being condensed as it passes through the chilling system, water is removed and that water has to go somewhere. If it is not properly drained it can lead to microbial growth, but it is not a common problem. 

Q: Can air conditioning make me feel tired and my skin and eyes feel drier? 
Because water is being removed from the air, the air can feel drier. But that feeling of dryness is more often from working in front of a computer screen all day. Physiologically, we don’t blink as often when using computers and that makes our eyes feel dry. If your office is running the air conditioning too cool this can also make the air feel drier because more water is condensing as the air is chilled. If that’s the case, I encourage you to speak to your building maintenance staff. There is no need to run air conditioning so that it feels cold. It’s a waste of energy and it makes people feel uncomfortable. As for fatigue, there is no evidence it is linked to air conditioning.

Q: How does going back and forth from a cold air-conditioned space to the hot outdoors affect my body? 
Our bodies can accommodate going from hot to cold. You may feel clammy if you perspire in the heat and then go into a chilled environment. But it doesn’t have a huge effect for health. 

Q: What about using air conditioning in my car?
This is a system you should definitely check regularly! The air filter in your air conditioning system can collect moisture and then circulate microbial particles that can cause health issues. It’s cheap to replace and I recommend everyone get that filter checked. It really pays off.

Q: Are their any health benefits from air conditioning? 
Air conditioning can be a lifesaver. When the weather suddenly gets warm, the very young and the elderly face health risks, because they can’t regulate their body temperatures efficiently. You may see older people still in sweaters and coats who don’t feel hot but they are at serious risk for heat stroke. This is where air conditioning becomes so important and it’s why we recommend people go to their local mall to escape the heat. It’s also a boon for people with allergies, since it filters out so many allergens that can crop up in warmer weather. 

Dr. Karen Bartlett is a professor in the School of Population & Public Health, Occupational and Environmental Health Division in the UBC Faculty of Medicine. 


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