At the Doctor’s Office
Your pediatrician sees your child has a hacking cough and suggests you use a humidifier. Cool mist or warm mist? “Cool mist,” the pediatrician advises, likely because humidifiers that produce warm mist (either a warm-mist humidifier or a steam vaporizer) contain boiling water which can be a burn hazard if they accidentally tip over.
So off you go to the store and pick whichever humidifier says “cool-mist” at the price point that’s best and head home. That night, you fill it up with water from the sink, find a stable place to station the unit, make sure the mist reaches your child and then, hope they will get better faster.
The only change your pediatrician wants you to make to your child’s environment is to increase the humidity level; dry air can aggravate colds, congestion and coughs. But what you need to know is this:
When using a humidifier you will be doing more to your indoor environment than just changing the humidity.
Will increasing the humidity in your home create or aggravate a hidden mold problem and create toxic mold exposure?
Is the water pure or does it have arsenic, fluoride or heavy metals like lead or chromium. Does it contain chemicals or traces of anti-depressants and other drugs in it?
Is there something in the humidifier that the water is interacting with, i.e. bacteria, mold, chemicals, antimicrobials or BPA, that is being pumped into the air your child will breathe?
Do you know if new humidifier technologies that transform water into super-small molecules have been proven to be safe?
These questions highlight the realities of using a humidifier that your pediatrician may not be considering.
Humidifiers and Health
One of the biggest issues with humidifiers is that if they are not impeccably and frequently maintained, microorganisms such as fungi or bacteria can grow inside. These can then be broadcast into the air and inhaled by those in the room. Inhaling some of these organisms can lead to hypersensitivity pneumonitis, also known as “humidifier lung.” Symptoms such as chills, coughing, fever, and shortness of breath result from the body’s immune system reacting to these pathogens.
“ … this case raises important questions about exposing
infants and young children to humidifiers and emphasizes the need for further study.”
Bacteria that cause Legionellosis, or Legionnaires’ disease, can also grow in humidifiers and, if inhaled, cause flu-like symptoms that can progress into pneumonia-like symptoms.
Damage to the lungs can also be caused by using tap water in ultrasonic or impeller humidifiers that broadcast mineral dust into the air. A December 2010 study in Pediatrics documents the case of inhalational lung injury in a 6-month old who inhaled the “white dust” produced by an ultrasonic humidifier. “Clinical consequences included prolonged hypoxemia, tachypnea, and failure to thrive. An aggressive management approach was successfully pursued with high-dose pulse steroid therapy.”
The study concluded that “this case raises important questions about exposing infants and young children to humidifiers and emphasizes the need for further study.”
While not everyone will develop a disease from bacteria in the air, it is critical to realize that babies’ and children’s immune systems are not fully developed and therefore more susceptible to such microorganisms.
Do You Really Need a Humidifier?
What if you changed some of the ways you did things to avoid the need for a humidifier? SafBaby’s Healthy Building and Indoor Environmental Expert Mary Cordaro suggests the following:
Consider the temperature setting of your thermostat. The higher the temperature is set, the more you will dry out the air.
Do you run your heater at night? Consider keeping it low and wearing warmer night clothes, add some blankets, or even better, a certified organic wool-fill comforter which is a natural regulator of temperature.
And, it is important to assess your home. If you have soft goods (pillows, lots of upholstered furniture, etc.) plus wall-to-wall carpet, you have an environment that will absorb moisture, dry out slowly and ineffectively – a perfect breeding ground for mold.
Additionally, if there is any indication at all that there is mold in your home, get a mold inspection from a qualified and experienced independent mold inspector right away. (To locate one, go to iaqa.org.) Better yet, don’t start using a humidifier until a mold inspector says your home is mold-free. Until you are absolutely certain that there is no mold in your home, avoid using a humidifier as it exacerbates mold which can lead to serious health consequences.
-SafBaby Expert Mary Cordaro
Using a humidifier seems like an innocuous way to ease your child’s respiratory symptoms. Yet, it can cause respiratory problems which, ironically, are what you are trying to eliminate!
The take away is that increased moisture is not necessarily the only by-product of humidifier use.
With this awareness in mind, you may still make the decision to purchase and use a humidifier.
In Part 2 of this post, Humidifiers for Babies and Children: Healthiest Choices, Safest Uses, Mary Cordaro shares her guidelines on how to buy, use, monitor and maintain a humidifier in the healthiest way.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted in March 2016 and has been reviewed and updated.