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The Hazards of Dry Air on Your Health

The health of yourself, your colleagues and your loved ones is probably something you think about often. Should we get flu shots? Are we getting enough exercise? Is there really a benefit to a standing workstation compared to a seated one?

There is one question though I don’t think we ask ourselves often enough. Is the quality of air we’re breathing healthy and safe?

According to the United States Department of Labor, the quality of indoor air is as important to your personal comfort as it is to your health. Poor air quality has been tied to symptoms ranging from any of the following:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs

Additionally, different types of air can affect the body in different ways. Some diseases have been linked to air contaminants, such as asthma in damp environments. Viruses and infections, like colds and the flu, can also spread more rapidly when dry conditions are present. Today, we're going to focus on low humidity.

What does it mean to have dry air?

In truth, there is no simple answer to what it means to have dry air. Research shows that the ideal level of indoor humidity is between forty and sixty percent; however, the temperature outdoors will have dramatic effect on how well your structure is able to manage different air moisture levels. For example, a humidity level within a typical range can cause moisture to appear and freeze on windows and even within walls and attic spaces depending on how cold it is outside.  

A great article was published by the StarTribune in Minnesota last winter that provides some guidelines of relative indoor humidity versus the outdoor temperature. Here are a number of key points as they’ve defined them.

  • If outside temperature is 20 to 40 degrees, humidity indoors should not be more than 40 percent.
  • If outside temperature is 10 to 20 degrees, humidity indoors should not be more than 35 percent.
  • If outside temperature is 0 to 10 degrees, humidity indoors should not be more than 30 percent.
  • If outside temperature is 10-below to 0, humidity indoors should not be more than 25 percent.
  • If outside temperature is 20-below to 10-below, humidity indoors should not be more than 20 percent.
  • If outdoor temperature is lower than 20-below, inside humidity should not be more than 15 percent.

As you can see, humidity levels aren’t a set it and forget it consideration. It’s important to monitor the constant changes in local temperature and humidity to keep from generating air that is too dry and unsafe as surrounding conditions fluctuate.

What causes dry air?

Dry air develops indoors because of a number of key factors.

  • Cold Air | The cooler the air temperature the less water that it is able to carry and maintain. This air is often able to penetrate homes and workplaces through poorly insulated windows, open doors, and loading docks.
  • Indoor Heating | Many furnaces use combustion to create hot air. This process tends to burn out the little moisture that was left in the cool air to begin with, exacerbating the problem.
  • Dry Air | This may seem repetitive, but it’s true that dry air can cause dry air. The less humidity that is in the air, the colder it feels. This drives people to crank their heat a little higher to remain a little warmer, further drying the environment and creating an even worse situation. It’s a dangerous cycle.

As you can imagine by this list, your risk for dry air varies dependent on outdoor weather temperature and humidity. This means your risk level can be dependent on your geographical location.

Why does this all matter?

As we’ve already touched on, dry air can impact your health as well as the wellness of those around you. Irritation can be caused over time as low humidity dries out and inflames the mucous membrane that lines our respiratory tract.

This membrane is what our body uses to trap disease causing organisms from penetrating into our system. When this happens we become more at risk of respiratory infections, and are left more susceptible to the cold and flu season. Because the membrane lines your nasal cavity, as it dries out you’ll also find yourself more susceptible to frequent nose bleeds.

However, one of the most frustrating reasons it’s bad to have dry air indoors is because viruses tend to live longer in it. This allows them to linger and spread. If for no other reason, that alone isn’t a happy thought for a home or crowded workspace.

How can this be combated?

While the obvious answer is introducing moisture back into the environment, there are a number of ways to help keep the air in your home or workplace safe and comfortable for you to breathe.

  1. Ensure that your office or home is properly insulated. The more cold air that is able to enter, the drier the air becomes. Make sure doors are closed and sealed and windows are well enough insulated that they aren’t letting a tremendous amount of cold air into the room. If replacing windows and doors with more energy efficient ones isn’t an option there are a number of low cost solutions to get you through the cold winter months.
    • Replace weatherstripping and caulking on both the inside and outside of your windows.
    • Install heavy curtains to help absorb the cold air before it can circulate into the environment. This can be done around both windows and doors.
    • If you have space at the bottom of your doors, consider laying towels along the floor to keep cold air from rushing in. You can also consider a door snake for a look that feels more planned than desperate.
  2. Use household wares to help introduce moisture back into the air. Boil a pot of water on the stove, or let your laundry air dry. Both can help increase the quality of air around you.
  3. Purchase a portable humidifier or have a whole house humidifier added to your furnace. These devices use filters or screens to collect water and use fans to blow through them helping to release the moisture back into the air. The fog that these types of devices put off is added moisture that you can see.

Is that everything?.

Unfortunately, no. In the process of moistening the air you need to make sure that your solutions don’t snap the issue in the other direction because having air that’s too moist can be detrimental to your home. For that reason you need to make sure that you closely monitor the ongoing humidity levels and temperature of wherever you are to help maintain the highest quality air for yourself and those around you. Even so, these tips can go a long way toward maximizing productivity in your workplace.

Check back next month as we look at how high humidity’s effect on the body can be drastically differently from dry air.

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