RogerBW's Blog

Con Crud, Air Conditioning, and Legionnaire's Disease 16 October 2014

Why does every large convention now seem to have an associated disease, the "con crud", generally a respiratory tract infection?

The basic contagion scenario is simple enough: when lots of people from different disease environments come together in one place, some of them will obviously have little resistance to the diseases that others are carrying. The carriers may be asymptomatic, or they may feel that the convention's so important that they'll push through their symptoms so as not to miss it. (The current Anglo-American work culture that suggests taking time off for illness is a sign of moral failure doesn't help here, because it means people are in a mindset of ignoring symptoms.)

However, this doesn't explain many people's experience of con crud getting worse over the last twenty years or so. Is it that conventions are larger? When I first went to GenCon in 1988 (combined with Origins for the year), it was about 12,000, and that was regarded as unsustainably huge; PAX these days is 70,000 or bigger, E3 is 48,000, and this is now regarded as quite normal. On the other hand, while Loncon 3 at 7,951 on site was regarded as pretty big for a Worldcon, it wasn't wildly out of scale with those of the 1990s; but after Loncon there was wide-ranging major illness, even up to whooping cough!

Poor hand hygiene is regarded as a possible causative factor. Thus the recent American obsession with alcohol-based hand sanitiser, which has spread to some places in the UK; someone who isn't a manufacturer of the stuff has now finally pointed out that sterilising your hands is all very well if you're about to be operating on someone but is remarkably bad for your general health because the next bacterium to come along will have no competition in its colonisation efforts. In any case, I don't think hand hygiene has got profoundly worse in the last twenty years.

A factor that I think is missing is air conditioning. Hotels have been trying to isolate their guests from outside air for years, gradually reducing the amount by which windows can be opened, largely so that they can cut down their heating/cooling bills. That's understandable, at least. Most hotels and conference venues now have some sort of air conditioning, rather than a simple heating system, which is also understandable.

However, they're running scared of Legionnaire's Disease. Legionella pneumophila breeds best in amoebae with which it's symbiotic, and they thrive in hot-water systems which aren't much disturbed. The original outbreak that gave its name to the disease was in an air-conditioning system's cooling tower. When contaminated water escapes and is aerosolised, the droplets are an effective disease vector. Generally speaking, industrial-scale air conditioning is now better designed than it was in 1976, but in the early 2000s there was still one plausible droplet source: the humidifier. You can patch up the leaks as well as you like, but the humidifier still has to release water into the air.

Unless, of course, you turn it off. Which is what was done, as far as I can tell as a matter of policy, all over the world in the early 2000s. All of a sudden, I noticed, after two or three days of being at a convention hotel or conference centre, everyone would have raw throats and runny noses, not with other disease symptoms but purely from profound atmospheric dehydration. (And the hotel sells more drinks because everyone's mouth is dry. I'm sure that's a coincidence.)

Having dry air may well mean you don't get legionellosis from the humidifier and sue the hotel, but a dry throat and nose lay you more open to infection from every droplet-borne bacterium and virus out there.

And that, I believe, is why we now have con crud.

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:25pm on 16 October 2014

    How about taking your own humidifier and using it to humidify your bedroom? At least that way you aren't sleeping in dry air.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 02:39pm on 16 October 2014

    It might well help. These days if I'm at a big convention I tend to stay somewhere outside the con hotel if it's at all possible, ideally a Bed and Breakfast where they just have boring old windows, so I'm only being dried out during the day.

  3. Posted by Dr Bob at 06:42pm on 16 October 2014

    Dry throats aside, I usually turn off the air-con in any hotel room because of the annoying and random clanking and growling noises it tends to make at times I want to be asleep.

    I've noticed at some cons the bedrooms may be dry, but the panel/gaming rooms are getting close to 100% humidity from too many mammals breathing and sweating. Perhaps con crud is a bug that can survive the constant switch to and from those extremes?

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 08:20pm on 16 October 2014

    Makes sense. I noticed it first at places like the Crowne Plaza in Glasgow, where the panels were getting the same air feed as everywhere else and the whole place was parched, but change of humidity certainly seems worth considering.

  5. Posted by Chris Bell at 09:28am on 17 October 2014

    Back in about 2000, when my hotel bedrooms at conventions first started tasting in my mouth like an arid desert and the windows no longer opened to let in actual air, and I could feel my nose drying up and getting stiff inside overnight, I took to getting one of the hand-towels and soaking it, then putting it down beside my bed as if it were a bedside rug. It did help a bit.

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