Sunday, February 26, 2017

An Ill Wind: The Health Effects of Wind

Bad-hair days might be a personal frustration, possibly even a social calamity, but bad-air days can send the population of a whole region into a tailspin. Literally. By “bad air” I don’t mean urban smog, although that certainly merits an article, if not an actual solution. And while the fetid pong in one’s dorm room after an Oktoberfest all-you- can-drink bratwurst bash and sauerkraut-eating contest might bring tears to one’s eyes, that’s not the bad air I’m considering.

Under certain weather conditions, air becomes laden with positively charged ions, which is not a plus, as they can adversely affect our mental and emotional well-being. The saying “It’s an ill wind that blows no good” is meant to remind us that in the midst of difficulty we often find hidden gifts. Then again, sometimes the wind is what makes us ill.

Positive ions are always around, but in blustery conditions, especially if humidity is low and temperatures moderate to high, they become over-abundant. The wind’s energy can apparently strip away a negatively-charged electron from charge-neutral molecules such as nitrogen, carbon dioxide, oxygen and others, thus changing them into positive ions. These charged particles can do odd things. For instance, a friend in southern France recently told me of his neighbor who is largely disabled by seasonal winds there. Until they blow over, she is too disoriented to drive or go to work. Science has not been able to explain exactly why too many positive ions in the air are a negative for us, but it has confirmed that the effect is real.

References to “evil” or “devil” winds can be found in centuries-old documents, and oral traditions from regions around the globe include tales of persistent winds driving people mad. Periods of relentless wind can occur anywhere, but annual tempests in some areas have been named. Italy suffers through the sirocco; in the Pacific Northwest, it’s the Chinook. The sharav afflicts Israelis, and Western Europeans persevere through the foehn. The American Southwest endures the Santa Ana; the ghibli rages across Libya; southern France has its mistral, and the zonda roars through the Argentine Andes. Until the early 1980s, however, the majority of the scientific world dismissed regional tales of havoc wrought by gusty weather as folklore.

Although solid research on the human-health effects of wind dates back to the late 1960s in Israel, peer-reviewed papers began appearing in greater numbers in scientific journals starting around 1980. Since then, studies continue to bolster the concept that there are physical and psychological consequences of bad air.

A New York Times article published on October 6, 1981 mentions an Israeli study which found that during the sharav, “…thirty percent of the [Israeli] population becomes ill with migraine, nausea, vomiting, irritability, dimness of vision, respiratory symptoms and other [sharav-induced] effects.” The same article cites a report from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In it, Dr. Jonathan M. Charry of Rockefeller University and Dr. Frank B.W. Hawkinshire 5th of N.Y.U. stated that their experiments found “The apparent effects of positive ions included increased…irritability as well as a slowing of reaction times…Scores showed an increase in tension, inattention and fatigue.”

A 2012 case study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the U.S. National Library of Medicine examined the impact of wind direction. The case study highlighted work done in 2008 at the Center for Integrative Psychiatry in The Netherlands. The experiment concluded that, even after adjusting for other weather variables, wind direction had a notable effect on mental health; specifically, a southeasterly wind raised anxiety and lowered energy levels. In other words, it blew no good.

Some health effects in weather-afflicted people are similar to those with microbial infections. An article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on March 12, 1988 makes reference to a 1983 Austrian study in which 2,400 of 3,000 subjects with wind-related malaise had above-normal blood sedimentation rates. An elevated blood-sed rate is one marker of infection. Other findings include markedly lower blood levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with feeling good.

It is important to note that not all people are affected by wind. In fact, most research seems to show that only about one-third of any given population is impacted. But that one-third should be happy to learn their weather-induced complaints are not in their heads. On their heads, maybe. In the words of William Puzzo, Professor of World Geography at Cal State Fullerton, as quoted in the aforementioned Los Angeles Times article: “…an excess of positive ions tends to almost literally overcharge them [people] with electrical energy. Their hair will have a tendency almost to stand on end…” There you have it: bad air causes irritability, fatigue, migraines — and bad hair.


Paul Hetzler

Paul Hetzler is the Horticulture and Natural Resources Educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

You can reach Paul at the Cornell Cooperative Extension office in Canton at (315) 379-9192.




14 Responses

  1. Ray Mainer says:

    Where do all the negative ions go?

  2. Richard says:

    As a youth of 19, in Germany, sober and on NO meds., I heard talk abt “Foehn”, German for “mistral”. It occured when hot, dry Saharan winds passed over Mediterranean, gathering moisture, occasionally making it over The Alps, and suddenly cooling. I don’t recall being affected back then . Now, living at LAT48 and only 300FT above sea-level, I AM noticeably affected by SADD/WinterDepression. Dr. has me on non-Rx 5000-IU vit D-3 for six worst months. It seems to help with emotional state.
    At age 60, sober but on blood-pressure med, I was in Munich at Oktoberfest, which starts last weekend in Sep. While watching moving contingents in the opening Parade from the grand-stand, I experienced moderate VERTIGO; but no other noticeable effects.
    So, FOEHN could be age- &/or health-related. Leaving me with one thing to say: Prosit! Do so moderately, and take the tram home! 🙂

  3. Bill says:

    Has the causality between positive ions and all these wind maladies now been demonstrated with more scientific certainty? I’m just wondering if at least some of these symptoms might be cause by other particles, microbes or fungi picked up and carried by the wind (e.g. the Desert Fever phenomenon in the southwest which is from a fungus living in the desert soil).

  4. Balian the Cat says:

    I was hoping this well informed article would confirm my suspicion that it is much “windier” of late. I have had very little luck finding a scientific article regarding it but, anecdotally, it seems to me that 20mph winds have replaced the north country breeze we used to enjoy. Constant wind >10mph has some affect on my nervous system – ionic or otherwise.

    • Boreas says:

      Balian,

      I agree with you. It seems difficult to find a calm day – at least on my days off.

      • Balian the Cat says:

        Boreas,

        I used to just think that my mind would just get preoccupied with roof damage or the trash cans heading down the street – but reading this article I identified with the actual “unease” and general anxiety mentioned when the wind blows for 2-3 days straight or exceeds some threshold. I can see how people go “Mad” if they cannot escape it.

        I assume that it’s climate change at work, but I don’t want Kelly Ann Conway wagging a finger at me so I’ll keep that between us.

        • Boreas says:

          Balian,

          I have a friend that lived most of his life in S. Dakota. People from the prairie seem to always mention maddening winds as the biggest detractor from the region. Not only do they have winds to deal with, they don’t have many trees to slow it down. Tales are told and songs are sung of homesteaders flipping out and killing their spouse or family, especially in winter, attributing it to ‘cabin fever’.

  5. JohnL says:

    Ben Franklin didn’t think the common cold was caused by cold air; he thought it happened because we were stuck in close quarters with a bunch of gross, germ-infested flesh tubes. To avoid getting sick, Franklin came up with something he called an “air bath.” He would open the windows of his house to increase air circulation and then sit in front of the window in the nude, presumably to get the full effects of the wind that was blowing. Ben was healthier than most in his day. Disclaimer alert: Don’t try to picture Mr Franklin in the altogether. It could be a bit disturbing.

  6. Paul Hetzler Paul Hetzler says:

    Wow, such interesting comments…

    Not sure where all the negativity goes, but i suspect Boreas is correct. Actually, ions by definition are elements (or molecules) which are “out of whack.” Instead of being neutral, they bear a charge, and this is usually an unstable, temporary state.
    Honestly, I do not know what happens to free (negatively charged) electrons in the lower atmosphere…maybe someone could chime in on that.

    As to the issue of mold or other wind-borne allergens or substances, that is a great observation. No doubt this plays a role in the human-health effects of strong regional winds, especially in extreme reactions such as the one my French friend related to me. However, much of the research referenced in the article was on the effects of positive ions, not wind per se, so things like mold/allergen effects would be in addition to the ionic effects.

    And while I agree it seems windier more often in northern NYS than it was 15 or 20 years ago, I have not yet looked into data on trends in wind patterns in the Northeast. It sounds like it might make a good article… Really neat to hear what people have to say.

    • Boreas says:

      Paul,

      I suspect the oppositely charged ions attach to objects on the ground and the ground itself. I believe this ion imbalance is essentially the same as what creates lightning – friction. Lightning is typically caused by vertical movement of air in thunderheads due to temperature differentials. This creates plus and minus charges that, when they are sufficient, create the lightning spark.

      But there is a more insidious type of static that occurs out west in drier climates. This is caused mostly by horizontal movement of air across mountains and ridges (I believe). It is fairly common on clear, dry, windy days for lightning discharges on peaks and ridges to occur. Hikers are occasionally struck by the proverbial ‘bolt out of the blue’ and killed. Hikers in the Rockies and desert mountains need to be aware of danger signs of excessive static charges building up (hair standing up, static cling on clothes, sometimes very faint crackling/buzzing, etc.) and take immediate action – usually squatting in a ball shape to avoid being the only lightning rod for miles. Ridgelines and peaks should be avoided when these conditions are present.

    • Balian the Cat says:

      Paul,

      I suspect that if one had the time to invest would be possible to a] demonstrate that frequency and intensity of wind events in the NC have increased (I am not sure as to the time frame. It seems more recent to me than 15-20 yrs but that could be my own lack of attention or an increased reaction to it?) and b] correlate the evidence to something Climate Change related: A dip in the jet stream, El Nino/La Nina, the Atlantic Conveyor, etc. I agree that it would make for an interesting article – one which I would read with great interest.

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