The Surprisingly Lethal Price of Air-Conditioning

'There are consequences for adapting to future climate change,' warns the lead author on a new study. wandee007/Shutterstock

In the middle of a heat wave, it goes without saying that those who have air-conditioning are cranking it up.

In fact, health officials say it could save lives. And for those who don't have AC, they recommend finding a mall or public venue to hole up in while the sun goes through its death-ray phase.

After all, we know that heat kills. A heat wave is being blamed for deaths from Pennsylvania to New York to Quebec, Canada — where at least 33 people have died in recent days.

And, as global temperatures rise year after year, we'll probably be relying on AC more and more.

But that, say scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is killing us, too.

It may be more subtle than a heat wave, but the toll air-conditioning takes could have a much deeper, long-term impact.

In a study published in PLOS Medicine this week, the researchers suggest our AC dependency could kill as many as 1,000 more people every year in the eastern U.S. alone. The trouble, they note, is the burden air-conditioning puts on fossil-fuel burning electricity plants.

As summer ratchets up the heat, we ratchet up the AC and power plants ratchet up the emissions.

As the battle between ever-rising heat and air-conditioning rages, researchers paint a dark portrait of what the eastern U.S. might look like by 2050.

Their computer models suggests 13,000 deaths every year — mostly from particulate matter released into the air as a byproduct of burning fossil fuels.

What's more, their simulations suggest, there would be an additional 3,000 deaths from ozone exposure.

"What we found is that air pollution will get worse," lead author David Abel told UW News. "There are consequences for adapting to future climate change."

Air conditioning units on the roof of a building.
Increasingly hot summers have led to an increased reliance on air conditioners. Alex Marakhovets/Shutterstock

In the study abstract, researchers admit "indoor use of air conditioning can be an effective strategy to reduce heat exposure."

But the heat isn't going anywhere but up.

"Increased air conditioning use increases emissions of air pollutants from power plants, in turn worsening air quality and human health impacts," they write in the study's abstract

So going Warp 10 on the air conditioning might save a life today. But is it worth 10 lives lost to air pollution down the road?

Of course, you shouldn't have to sweat that question.

Certainly, there are changes you can make at home to reduce AC usage. A strategically placed box fan or two can really stir the air for the better. You might even consider using a microwave oven instead of a conventional one.

While we can all chip in on the energy conservation side, researchers say the study draws attention to the bigger picture.

"The answer is clean energy," Abel told UW News. "That is something we can control that will help both climate change and future air pollution. If we change nothing, both are going to get worse."

That will require a concerted effort on the part of governments.

Then again, maybe we can do something about that, too, like put a little heat on our elected officials to get off the fossil fuel train — before it takes us all to a place there's no coming back from.