We had forms of heating for a very long time before we ever 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. Cox points out that as recently as the 1960s, only 12 percent of Americans had some kind of AC in their homes. While heat was an absolute necessity for people to live in cold climates, Cox says, air conditioning is more of a newcomer on the climate-controlled front.
And research suggests that a little freaking out is warranted
“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 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. He also mentions an ominous-sounding phenomenon: sick building syndrome.
“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 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.”
how your central air conditioning works
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. To protect yourself, he says, your best defense is a well-maintained and routinely serviced AC unit. (HVAC repairmen, you owe this guy!)
But Mendell is also quick to point out that AC has been firmly linked to many health benefits. “Outdoor air pollution is common in urban environments, and especially in heavy traffic,” he says as just one example. “AC filters out the particles in outdoor 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 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.
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Both Bell and Mendell also say that during intense heat waves, AC saves lives.If this seesawing between AC’s benefits and risks feels disorienting, you’re not alone. “Anyone who does research on these systems will admit there’s still a lot of things we don’t know,” Mendell says.
What isn’t in doubt, though, is air conditioning’s very real and harmful impact on the planet.
“The headline issue is its contribution to greenhouse warming,” says Cox, the Land Institute environmental researcher. Indoor heating has long been a bigger contributor than AC to the accumulation of harmful greenhouse gasses, Cox says. But the U.S. population’s southward shift has allowed AC to catch up—and maybe draw even.Despite his concern for the planet, Cox says that AC can be life saving and beneficial. But he 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.
A traditional home comfort system has two parts: an indoor unit, such as a furnace or air handler, and an outdoor unit. An air conditioner is the outdoor unit that cools air and sends it to the indoor unit to be circulated through your home. The indoor and outdoor units are designed to work together, and when the air conditioner is properly matched with a furnace or air handler, the result is maximum efficiency and extended system life. The air conditioning part of your “split system” includes a compressor, a fan, condenser coil, evaporator coil and a refrigerant. The system extracts heat from indoor air and transfers it outside, leaving the cooled indoor air to be recirculated. Air conditioning and cooling efficiency is measured using a Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER). A higher SEER signifies higher energy efficiency.Central air conditioners circulate cool air through a system of supply and return ducts. Supply ducts and registers (i.e., openings in the walls, floors, or ceilings covered by grills) carry cooled air from the air conditioner to the home. This cooled air becomes warmer as it circulates through the home; then it flows back to the central air conditioner through return ducts and registers.