Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Office ACs Can Make Your Lungs Suffer

Working in a cool, comfortable office sure feels good, but there are facts about centralised air-conditioned offices that could make you catch your breath — literally. Contrary to claims of filtering out impure air, the AC ducts could actually be health hazards themselves, causing a number of air-borne diseases.

"Low temperatures in air ducts are conductive to the growth of many fungi and algae, which cause infections", says Dr V. Nageshwar, consultant interventional pulmonologist at Wockhardt Hospital, Hyderabad. Breathing the air circulated through these ducts could make you sicker than you believed possible, because AC maintenance personnel have been known to have cleared out buckets of dust, packs of mould, dead rats and rotting from the ducts!
The problem is so widespread that the World Health Organisation even coined a term for it — Sick building Syndrome, or SBS, meaning buildings where faulty heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, among other factors, could cause a medley of ailments.

And guess what seals your fate — the fact that offices seal their windows to maintain the perfect AC conditions. "Most companies do not realise that they are affecting the health of their employees in the long run.

If you do not allow fresh air in, you are breathing increased levels of CO2 and fungal spores from ducts, which can cause gradual suffocation and irreversible lung infections," says Dr Nageshwar. He adds, "Fungal spores which grow in the unclean AC ducts reach the tiny air spaces in the lung called alveoli. This causes inflammation at the alveolar level resulting in irreversible damage. Alveoli are fundamental functional units of the lung, where the oxygen enters the blood and CO2 is exchanged. Once a person suffers from lung disease, he appears to crave for sufficient oxygen for breathing as this exchange mechanism is hampered."

What about the filters that are supposed to purify the air? "None of the existing brands can filter anything below 20 microns", says Voltas official at Chennai, Hari P. "Filtering smaller particles would require high-capacity fans, which in turn increases power consumption. Conditions prevalent in air handling units and air ducts are congenial for growth of fungi, which also provide bio-adhesive force to dust and particulate contaminants, which further results in a polluted indoor environment. Ozone systems, which can be installed with centralized ACs, can control fungi, bacteria and odour to a greater degree", Hari adds, and suggests cleaning the ducts about once a month in offices, and more often in places like hospitals.

ENT disorders and allergy specialist Dr P.P Devan, who has pioneered a treatment for such allergies using a High Frequency Radio Wave at his clinic in Mangalore, remarks, "Any dust particle can cause an allergy, but particles in the range of 3-10 microns size do not get filtered by the AC filters and can cause diseases like allergic fungal sinusitis or perhaps fungal pneumonia, which can also be life threatening in some cases." Dr Devan adds that drugs can only provide symptomatic relief to allergies — they cannot cure.

Symptoms Of Dust Allergy

  1. Irritation of eyes, nose, throat
  2. Headache
  3. Dizziness and fatigability
  4. Breathlessness
  5. Chest tightness

Persons under continuous exposure may land up with respiratory distresses,cardiac complications, cancer or any other similar fatal conditions.
Symptoms of shortness of breath, cough, chills and nausea typically occur four to eight hours after the exposure.

What Offices Can Do

  1. Clean the ducts properly, maintain regularly.
  2. Take swabs from the air-conditioner ducts to check for microorganism
  3. growth, take prevention measures.
  4. Install ionic or HEPA air filters and the like.
  5. Open windows intermittently to allow natural ventilation across.

If symptoms appear, individuals must meet a lung specialist (pulmonologist) and undergo pulmonary investigations to rule out any disease condition.

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