Heating up the fight against disease

Those of us familiar with the traditional cast iron steam radiator most likely do not have fond memories. Radiators bang and clatter away while you’re trying to fall asleep, lurk against the wall just waiting to burn any exposed skin that might come in contact, and are seemingly always cranked to maximum heat. But, the traditional radiator has a surprising past as a key component in the fight against disease – one that shows many parallels to the current coronavirus pandemic.

The notorious steam radiator

Steam radiators are a fixture of many older buildings, particularly those built in the wake of the 1918 flu pandemic. The common wisdom of the time was that fresh, clean air could help to ward off diseases. Health officials encouraged everyone to throw open their windows, move activities outside, and avoid crowed enclosed spaces (this probably sounds a bit familiar). As you can imagine, this worked wonderfully through the warmer summer months but became difficult during colder weather. In response, housing authorities and engineers began to design heating systems that would be capable of keeping a room comfortably warm in the coldest months of the year, even with the windows wide open. This combination of over-engineered heating and open windows allowed for disease-fighting fresh air to continue to circulate.

An advertisement for radiators from the early 1900’s. Image from the New York Public Library Digital Collection

Unfortunately, as technology continued to advance many buildings saw their inefficient boilers replaced with more powerful units powered by oil and gas. Similarly, building material improvements lead to more efficient insulation, better quality windows, and other methods to control the loss of heat. All together, these improvements have lead to a problem of uncomfortably overheated buildings and a general dislike of radiators.

Interestingly, modern infectious disease experts think that these century-old pandemic initiatives still make sense today. Many experts have recommended moving activities outside whenever possible. In cases where that’s unfeasible, such as a classroom, it’s important to try to bring in as much fresh air as possible. Opening windows, optimizing airflow through the classroom, and updating ventilation systems are good steps. Similarly, areas with poor-ventilation such as enclosed study nooks or choir practice rooms, gyms, and locker rooms should be avoided when possible. Finally, even the addition of fans or standalone air purifiers can help to disperse any concentrated airborne virus that might be present.

To read more about the use of radiators check out this fantastic article by Bloomberg, or, if you’re interested in examining the COVID-19 pandemic from the comfort of your (uncomfortably warm but well ventilated) home we recommend Edvotek experiment 1219 – Simulation of COVID-19 Antibody Test.