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Ions, Winds, Waterfalls and Well-being

“Those hot dry winds that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.” Raymond Chandler- Red Wing

An ion is a charged atom or molecule. A negative ion has an extra electron and a positive ion is missing an electron. In nature, an average of 1 atom in 1016 is ionized…about 1000 to 2,000 per cubic centimeter, roughly balanced between negative and positive ions.While positive ions affect us negatively, negative ions have a positive affect!

Under certain natural conditions positive ions dominate. When a wind blows over a desert, it stirs up dust. The dust, being positively charged attaches to the negative ions and they tumble out of the airstream, leaving a wind rich in positive ions. The Santa Ana winds of Southern California, referred to by Mr. Chandler above, and the Swiss Foehn are examples of these “evil winds that blow no good”.  The Swiss and Austrians report dizziness, nausea, depression and migraines along with an increase in crime, suicides and accidents as a result of Foehn. It is an interesting fact that Austrian judges have been known to hand criminals a lighter sentence if the Foehn is cited as mitigating evidence! The positive ion rich mistrals of Arles were quite likely a contributing factor to Van Gough’s ear slashing depression (although the mono-diet of coffee and absinthe may also have played an important role.)

On the other hand, there are no known ill affects related to an abundance of negative ions. Quite the contrary…negative ions are known to stimulate plant growth, purify air, kill bacteria, relieve hay fever, dispel fatigue, lift depression, increase productivity and promote a general sense of well being. In nature, negative ions are produced by radioactive gasses, cosmic radiation, falling water, plants and ultraviolet rays. They are found in abundance at the seashore, in forests, near waterfalls and on mountains.

It follows that we would want the air of our homes to be like natural air in its most nurturing form…rich in negative ions.

In fact, the air in most conventionally built homes is just the opposite. Whereas 1,000 neg. ions per cubic centimeter is considered a minimally optimal it is not unusual for indoor air to have fewer than 100 neg. ions /ccm.. This is because the conventional home is full of positively charged surfaces that will “leach” neg-ions out of the air stream. These include metal ductwork, plastics, fluorescent lighting, synthetic finishes and furnishings, and computer terminals. The problem is further aggravated if the outdoor air is polluted. Thus, eliminating as many of these elements as possible in the home will help to minimize the depletion of negative ions.

Although one can buy machines to produce negative ions, many ion generating devices also generate ozone which can be damaging to our airways, fixing one indoor air quality problem while introducing another.

The over-arching philosophy of building biology is to work with nature to build-in or facilitate the desired conditions rather than to apply a mechanical band-aid with the associated impacts of energy use and noise. A shower is a built-in negative-ion generator and perhaps that is why we sing there. Radiant heating, fire, an abundant supply of fresh outdoor air, fountains, salt lamps, natural finishes and furniture and plant-life will all help create an enlivened, negative-ion rich home for our positive well being.

Paula Baker-Laporte, FAIA, is an architect and a certified building biology practitioner. She is the principle of Baker-Laporte and Associates and EcoNest Design. She is primary author of “Prescriptions for a Healthy House” and co-author with husband Robert Laporte of “Econest-Creating Sustainable Sanctuaries of Clay, Straw and Timber”. She can be reached through the website