Is Air Conditioning Bad for You?
The biology and ideology of home cooling.
So does air conditioning filter out dangerous particles from the air, or does it create a breeding ground for sickening spores? Does it make us ill or save our lives? Today’s debates may echo the ones we were having in the 1920s, but one thing is clear: Some of those who most need to cool their homes still refuse to do so out of fear and superstition. Last year, a team in Montreal looked at the A/C habits of several hundred local residents with chronic heart failure or obstructive pulmonary disease. These people—all middle-aged or older—were at especially high risk for heat-related death, yet one-third failed to use an air conditioner even in the dead of summer. A survey of their beliefs about the importance of home cooling found that 10 percent thought it offered no health benefits, 15 percent said it made existing problems worse, and 18 percent complained that it prevents fresh air from getting into the house.
The fact that people will take such vigorous and self-destructive stands on air conditioning on the basis of vague and inconclusive data suggests there's something else going on. Indeed, our "cultural cognitions" about what it means to control the indoor climate worked their way long ago into a national politics of temperature. Thermal guilt isn't a new phenomenon, nor has it been restricted to the A/C wars. Ackermann's book explains how the spread of efficient home heating in late-19th-century America brought on a sniggering contempt from European intellectuals. "The foreigner who visits America during the winter only suffers from the suffocating heat of the rooms," wrote one French journalist in 1888. "It is not only the houses that are heated night and day to a temperature of nearly 80 degrees, but it is the trains as well." She also cites Charles Dickens, who complained upon visiting a hotel in Boston that his room had been "made so infernally hot … by means of a furnace with pipes running through the passages, that we can hardly bear it."
But it didn't take long for the air conditioner—a distinctly American invention—to replace the infernal heater as the symbol of our crass and wasteful luxury. As was the case with central heating, early home cooling systems were at first installed only in the homes of the very rich, and then marketed aggressively to the middle class. To critics of the technology, not to mention the protectors of America's moral core, the desire for comfort had been transformed through advertising into a false necessity.
By the time we learned of Legionnaires' disease and Sick Building Syndrome the humble A/C unit was already a special source of shame, and a scapegoat in the crisis over rising energy costs. Though the appliance accounted for less than 3 percent of the nation's fuel consumption, it was made as much an emblem of the national malaise as the overheated furnace. When the federal government set up its program to help impoverished families pay their home energy bills, the poor and sweaty were left to suffer. (In 1984, Congress changed the rules to send more funds to warm-weather states, but it's still the case that very little money is spent on A/C.)
Now we find ourselves in a quiet culture war between the brrr-geoisie and the conditionistas, the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt, the blue states and the red ones. Two-thirds of Democrats believe we're seeing the effects of global warming, versus one-third of Republicans. In the 2004 election, George W. Bush took nine of the 10 hottest states in the country, and four years later John McCain won eight of 10. If you take both those elections together and throw out the outliers—Alaska and Hawaii—then the states that lean right are more than 5 degrees warmer, on average, than the ones that go left. (For reference, that's what separates the climates of Delaware and Arkansas.) These divisions now seem to play out in every twist of the A/C knob.
In the spirit of thermal bipartisanship, it's time we put aside the differences over hot and cold. It's no better to sweat than it is to shiver, no healthier to breathe the air in summer than it is in winter. Yet even in a year of record heat, our air conditioners remain a breeding ground for disagreement. The world is warming, but we don't have to. At least not yet.