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NJ AIR QUALITY BLOG

Illnesses Caused by Air Conditioning

ByMarc Silberberg

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Sick Building Syndrome

Finally, Pat B, who lives in upstate New York, landed a job she liked. She worked as a web-designer and was going places fast in her agency. She even managed to nab a client for them, a friend of a colleague who was recommended to the firm and hit it off with Pat and her style. The trouble started, less than a week into her new status. First came one sinus infection, and

soon afterwards another followed. Pat’s past medical history did not include treatment for recurring sinus infections. This condition was something entirely new to her. Pat was clueless as to the cause, until two months later when she began to have muscle cramps. Pat went through a battery of tests, including blood and allergy tests and was forced to take a leave of absence from her marketing agency. Fortunately, while on leave, her symptoms improved substantially. It wasn’t until she returned to work, that she connected the dots. At that moment, when Pat stepped into her office building, her throat started to burn.

Realizing that it must be the office building, where she worked, that was causing the symptoms, she found out that the ceiling tiles were moldy, and she could smell formaldehyde emanating from them. No one was more surprised and frightened than Pat, when she was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease, which causes scarring (fibrosis) of the lungs. The scarring causes stiffness in the lungs which makes it difficult to breathe. Some examples of ILD’s include: Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis and Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis. She ultimately found out that this same illness had already killed one of her young male co-workers. Anyone could put two and two together to recognize that there was something very bad going on in this office building.

What are the causes of sick building syndrome?

Since the 1970’s, builders and the authorities who regulate new building construction have been hermetically sealing their buildings to save energy costs, specifically for air conditioning and heating. Heaters, smoking and other mechanical devices, cause indoor combustion and a buildup of carbon monoxide. Other particles that are inhalable are combustible compounds such as styrene, benzene and other solvents. Many airborne-allergens, which humans are sensitive to are specific bacteria, spores, and fungi. Even the materials that are used in decorating large structures, such as, furniture, rugs, carpet glue and treated plywood give off toxic fumes.

1976 Philadelphia Legionnaires Disease Outbreak

I’m not sure how many of you readers are old enough to remember, July 21, 1976, about two hundred years almost to the day, from the day our country became an independent nation. It was indeed a festive summer with many happy celebrations.

In the middle of this joyous summer, a memorable convention of the American Legion took place in historic, Philadelphia. Just blocks away from, Independence Hall. The elegant Bellevue-Stratford Hotel was the venue for this four-day convention. Unfortunately, this convention will not be remembered for a successful gathering of patriots but rather for the deaths of several of the attendees.

The Pennsylvania branch of the American Legion was inundated with calls just a few days after the convention concluded. Horrific news of the deaths of several of the attendees was publicized. Among the three dozen or more hospitalized, twelve American Legion members had perished. The symptoms for the sick and the dying, were of a mysterious respiratory illness. Pneumonia like symptoms were present in nearly every case. These consisted of muscle aches, headaches, diarrhea, muscle chest pains, and severe coughing. Even though, many of the victims were older men and smokers, there were some casualties that were as young as thirty-nine years old. The only good news is that it was discovered that this illness was not contagious in the usual sense.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) embarked on its largest investigation in history. Labs remained open all night as state health workers studied the autopsy records of the deceased legionnaires. The medical investigators drilled convention members and hotel occupants about every move that they made while staying in Philadelphia, asking about what they ate for breakfast and how many times they rode the elevators.

Legionnaires disease strikes in NYC

In the summer of 2015, eighty-six New Yorkers were diagnosed with Legionnaires disease, with seven dying. This was the worst outbreak since the 1976 occurrence. Because the medical community were already familiar with the cause of the original outbreak, they looked for culprits in the city’s water systems. They found the culprits in five cooling towers located in the South Bronx. Several large buildings were found to be contaminated with the bacteria, called, Legionella. This included a Verizon office building, and a medical center, which were found to have air-conditioning systems with tainted cooling towers. Because of this outbreak, New York mayor, Bill de Blasio, promised regular inspection and cleaning of all the city’s air conditioning cooling towers.

We now know that Legionnaires disease is caused by poorly maintained artificial water systems, specifically, cooling towers or evaporating condensers associated with air conditioning and industrial cooling systems. Legionnaire’s Disease is caused by a type of bacteria that is inhaled. The bacteria live and grow in water systems at temperatures between twenty and fifty degrees Celsius (between sixty-eight and one-hundred-thirteen degrees Fahrenheit). Impurities cannot be allowed to build up. This disease has an incubation period of two to ten days. Untreated, this disease will usually get worse during the initial first week. Currently, there is no vaccine for Legionnaire’s Disease, however, antibiotics such as erythromycin, levaquin and azithromycin are effective treatment regimens.

Cold and Allergy Symptoms from Air Conditioning

Can your unseasonable summer cold be the result of too much of a good thing, air conditioning? Air conditioners can mimic the climatic environment of the winter cold and flu season. No wonder so many people complain of dry noses, sore throats, coughing and sneezing. Amazingly, when going outside in the summer heat, these symptoms usually decrease. The cold air produced by air conditioning is not inherently harmful. The trouble begins when mold, mildew bacteria and fungi meet. If these allergens are present in your home or office cooling systems, beware.

When these particles are in the air, an air conditioner will circulate these sickness inducing allergens. Your HVAC system can make the home, less humid, but it cannot address the root problems, when there are moldy walls, floors, etc. present. If not maintained properly, air conditioners will become a breeding place for mold and bacteria. Air is pulled over the coils where condensation is produced.

Another way that germs can get to you is through the drip or condensate drain. The moisture that collects on the evaporated coils is collected in the drip pan before being drained out of your home by the condensate drain.

All office buildings, hospitals and homes have germs. Your air conditioner is simply recirculating the germs. The more a person is exposed to a sickness caused by germs, the greater the chance that he will get sick. People who smoke, drink and have other medical issues are more susceptible, but no one is immune.

HVAC Sickness Prevention

Fatal and non-fatal diseases from such a worthwhile invention as the air conditioner is of serious concern. If you believe that your cold symptoms and allergies are caused by your home air conditioning systems, fixing it is less complicated than if you are living or working in a large building. For a private home, just call a local air duct cleaning service. They will check your ducts to make sure they are clean and in working order without any holes. A reliable company will explain to you what is wrong, for example, dirty, clogged or damaged ducts. If it is a multiple dwelling or office building it becomes more complicated. If several people become ill, the maintenance manager will have to comply with the city or state rules and get the air conditioner maintained before there are any casualties.

Also, it’s important for homeowners to make sure to clean up any water damage to prevent the growth of mold and mildew. This is because the infected air will just be recirculated by your air conditioning system. There are dependable mold and mildew specialist that will come to your home and remove these contaminants. All bathrooms should have windows that open or fans that can be switched on when showering. This will alleviate the humidity from the air and reduce the chances of mold and mildew buildup. Of course, make sure to get your AC tuned up every year and include a cleaning of the evaporator coils to make sure there is no leakage or clog in the condensate drain line.

Our government agencies have made a lot of progress in detecting the causes of serious air contamination illnesses. It is up to the individual in his home and the building owners at work to be diligent and responsible in maintaining the cleanest air possible for the inhabitants and workers. It took time for the world to realize the damage that air pollution does to our environment. Great strides have been taken in car safety, including electric and battery-operated vehicles, as well as controlling unsafe gas emissions. Now, internal air quality shall be dealt will, hopefully, soon and completely.

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