Humidifiers Aid Comfort, Not Health - the New York Times

By DEBORAH BLUMENTHALJAN. 2, 1988 This is a digitized version of an article from The Times's print archive, before the start of online publication in 1996. To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them. Occasionally the digitization process introduces transcription errors or other problems. Please send reports of such problems to . The Consumer Product Safety Commission is looking into the health risks of humidifiers.Over the years, other studies have shown that humidifiers that are not cleaned diligently and often become contaminated with microorganisms that grow in the water reservoirs. These microorganisms, or bits of them or their byproducts, can cause illness when spewed into the air and inhaled, especially by allergy-prone people.The study by the commission, a Federal agency that looks into the hazards of products used in the home, is comparing the growth of microbes in the water tanks of different humidifiers and the number of organisms discharged into the air, according to Dr. Richard Tyndall, a researcher. The results of the study, the most wide ranging of its kind, will be available in about two months.Well over half a million consumers bought portable humidifiers last year to put moisture into heated indoor air, which can be drier than the Sahara's 30 percent humidity. It parches the nose and throat, and can leave the skin feeling taut. It also takes its toll on furniture, plants and paintings. The moisture that humidifiers add to air makes people feel more comfortable, perks up plants and helps keep furniture and paintings from cracking.But even though moister air may make people feel more comfortable, experts say there are no health reasons to use humidifiers. The nasal and oral passages are the body's natural humidifiers, and air reaching the lungs is thus always moistened to some degree. A Source of Molds and BacteriaAdvertisementIf the water reservoirs of humidifiers are not cleaned regularly, molds and bacteria can breed in them. Humidifier fever, a relatively rare pneumonialike allergic condition, has been caused by breathing air that is contaminated with microorganisms from humidifiers.Advertisement''People live very nicely in the middle of the desert without adding humidity to their air,'' said Dr. Harriet Burge. She is a research scientist at the University of Michigan School of Medicine who was a consultant to the study and has done extensive research on indoor air quality and humidifier contamination.Dr. Burge said no reliable research supports the idea that adding moisture to the air prevents colds or even brings relief to those with asthma or croup. Humidifier manufacturers agree. ''They make the air moist and more comfortable, but there are no health benefits,'' said Michael Murphy, marketing product manager for Toshiba, a manufacturer of humidifiers.In the past several years, humidifier technology has changed significantly. The new ultrasonic units, which range in price from about $40 to $400, are quiet and lightweight. In these, the inaudible vibrations of a dime-sized ''nebulizer'' that oscillates 1.7 million times a second break water into a fine mist.Please verify you're not a robot by clicking the box.Invalid email address. Please re-enter.You must select a newsletter to subscribe to.View all New York Times newsletters.Ultrasonic units are compact. Evaporative units that add moisture to air by fanning it through a water-soaked pad are more cumbersome; they can weigh 100 pounds when filled with water. An ultrasonic unit filled to capacity weighs only about 20 pounds. More compact still are the inexpensive cool-mist vaporizers, which use a mechanical impeller to propel coarse droplets of water into the air. Ultrasonic Units Have Fewer HazardsIn recent years studies by Consumers Union, a private, nonprofit organization, have found that ultrasonic humidifiers pose less of a health hazard than other types because they kill molds and bacteria. The reports theorize that this happens because the high-speed vibrations fragment microbes. But one report noted that ''an ultrasonic humidifier may still spew bits and pieces of mold and bacteria,'' which can affect people with allergies.The reservoirs of the evaporative units may become contaminated, and have also been associated with humidifier fever in some cases.Dr. Burge advised cleaning evaporative humidifiers at least once a week, using a cup of bleach per gallon of water. Then rinse the tank thoroughly with plain water before refilling. She said ultrasonic and other spray humidifiers should be cleaned this way every day.Anyone who is allergic to molds should not use cool-mist vaporizers or ultrasonic humidifiers, since both spray water into the air, Dr. Burge said. Cool-mist vaporizers pose a greater hazard since they can disperse live organisms into the air. Studies have linked the use of cool-mist vaporizers in hospital rooms with severe respiratory infections.Experts say that placing a clean pan of fresh water on a radiator every day is the safest way to add moisture to indoor air, though it is less efficient than a humidifier.AdvertisementThe comfort that comes from having moist air in overheated apartments and homes might be worth the effort of keeping the machine clean. The key lies in choosing the right one for particular needs and cleaning part of a daily schedule.A version of this article appears in print on January 2, 1988, on Page 1001046 of the National edition with the headline: Humidifiers Aid Comfort, Not Health. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe

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