Most Americans use air conditioning every day, whether it’s in their office buildings or living spaces; 90% of the country has a unit at home, and AC accounts for about 10% of worldwide electricity consumption.
But, really, do we even need it?
A New York Times story put that question into perspective this week. People in some of the hottest climates around the world tolerate high temperatures much better than Americans. Citizens of countries like Mexico, Brazil and India use air conditioning a whole lot less than we do. The piece led to a viral debate on Twitter about whether AC is vital or even healthy for us.
Air-conditioning is unhealthy, bad, miserable, and sexist. I can’t explain how many times I’ve gotten sick over the summer b/c of overzealous AC in offices. #BanAC https://t.co/QPME4lMTVS
— Taylor Lorenz (@TaylorLorenz) July 7, 2019
In short: AC won’t do much harm to your health ― but only if the system is monitored closely and wisely. 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.
“A large body of research has found that occupants of offices with air conditioning tend to report more sick building syndrome (SBS) symptoms than occupants of naturally ventilated offices,” said William Fisk, leader of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Indoor Environment Group. “SBS symptoms are self-reported symptoms mostly of eye, nose or throat irritation and respiratory symptoms such as cough.”
Fisk said these symptoms are “possibly due to the moisture from AC units, which expose people to additional toxins, allergens or irritants.” That moisture leaves the system open to tiny pollutants.
“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.”
There are psychological effects, too. Productivity peaks in comfortable temperatures, not in sweltering heat or shivering cold. This is especially true for women. (Are you listening, office managers?)
“A considerable body of research indicates that human performance in office-like work is maximized when temperatures are maintained at about 71 [degrees Fahrenheit] plus or minus a degree or two,” Fisk said. “AC can help us maintain such temperatures, but other technologies can also help.” Yet AC can also take us in the opposite direction of an optimal