Air conditioning is a necessity in the UAE climate, but it can have a damaging effect on our health.
Keeping cool in UAE can have health costs
There's no denying we're thankful for the refreshing stream of iced air we feel when coming in from the stifling heat to an air-conditioned room. Temperature control is, of course, big business in the Emirates. It's estimated that 70 per cent of all power consumption in the UAE is down to the use of air conditioners. We rely on air con to make our homes, offices and commutes to and from work bearable, but it comes with hidden health costs.
Air con and allergies
Recently released data from the Environment Agency in Abu Dhabi shows that a rise in respiratory allergies and asthma throughout the Gulf region is one direct side effect of our indoor climate control. "Air conditioning circulates allergens and mould spores," explains Kate Bellamy, a technical adviser at the UK Institution of Occupational Safety and Health . "It's especially a problem in an environment where there is little natural ventilation."
The high humidity levels in this part of the world make it a near-perfect breeding ground for the house dust mites which also get a free ride from air conditioners. Diagnosis of asthma among UAE-based schoolchildren is now at 13.65 per cent - one of the highest national rates in the world - while the figure for allergic rhinitis (triggered by dust mites) among schoolchildren is almost 23 per cent.
Alongside the stirring up of dust particles, air-conditioning systems have been linked to the spread of lethal bacteria, too. "Given the right environment, legionella germs can multiply in water-based systems including air-conditioning units," explains Bellamy. The legionella microbes breed in the pipe work and water tanks used as part of the cooling system before being transmitted around buildings by the fans.
"Thankfully, more stringent, regular, preventive maintenance and filter changes mean the spread of legionnaires disease through air coolers is on the decline," says Dr Stephen Spiro from the British Lung Foundation. But Spiro and Bellamy warn against being complacent when it comes to air con. At the workplace or in public buildings and businesses, health advisers agree it's crucial that air-conditioning filters and grills are cleaned several times a year. You should also check that this is part of your maintenance agreement if you're living in communal blocks and that the bug breeding grounds - the filter drip trays - are treated with antibacterial agents.
No conditions for colds
Sometimes it just feels as if the chill in the air experienced in an artificially cooled room is triggering the summer sniffles you're feeling. But there's little evidence to say flu bugs are a result of the cooling system. "Air conditioning will not worsen the spread of an infection," says Bellamy. "Instead, just being in an open-plan office can be the cause for viruses like colds to spread more easily.
"Poor ventilation and drastic humidity and temperature changes throughout the day may make existing colds feel worse - and air conditioning can contribute to ailments such as Sick Building Syndrome, with symptoms that include headaches, feeling tired, dry eyes and blocked noses."
She warns: "Sitting in the air stream can cause discomfort and muscle and joint pain if you do it for too long." But of more concern to many experts, including Stan Cox, an environmental scientist and the author of Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World, is the way humans react to having an artificial climate. "Air-conditioned societies lose something for their perennial comfort," he argues. "People don't take breaks for the summer; they do less milling together outside in public spaces on hot days; there are fewer trips to the beach." Cox is one of a number of experts to suggest the rise in obesity levels in western society owes a lot to air-conditioned comfort, too.
On the plus side, the issue of unhealthy air conditioning looks set to be a thing of the past in the Emirates, with recently announced plans to overhaul the systems used here. From 2012 no system will be imported into the UAE that doesn't adhere to new health and energy efficiency-focused labelling systems. As well as literally cleaning up the air, the new standard appliances are expected to reduce electricity consumption by up to 30 per cent and save approximately Dh250 million per year.
Cool air robs skin of youthfulness
While the next generation of air conditioners should help cut your exposure to the diseases that gave the systems a bad name, the air-conditioning process can still cause your skin to suffer.
Research published in the British Journal of Dermatology has shown air cooling to be a major cause of irritation for sufferers of contact dermatitis - a skin complaint which, like asthma, is aggravated by exposure to allergens. Because conditioning units draw moisture from the air, they're also blamed for causing the skin to dry out, flake and become itchy. Without taking steps to keep it moisturised if you're almost constantly in air-conditioned living space then, over time, it can reduce the elasticity of the epidermis (outer layer).
Of course, if we didn't have air conditioning in the UAE the health implications would be almost unbearable. So taking a few steps to counter the down sides of being cool is essential.
Skin specialists suggest you keep your skin well moisturised and regularly hydrated by drinking water whenever at your desk or at home. Other ways of reducing the drying effects include maintaining a healthy intake of skin-boosting nutrients, such as vitamins C and E along with omega-3 fish oils. Try placing bowls of water out in your room to counter the moisture-draining effects of the fans and, where possible, cut down your exposure to air conditioning - certainly avoid sitting anywhere near the direct "blast" from a unit, too.
And finally, take some comfort in a recent report from Yale University in the US which suggests that air conditioning could actually be good for you. In studies into pollution levels it was revealed, in the journal Epidemiology, that people living in homes with air conditioning are less likely to suffer the ill effects of air pollution.