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Ever wondered what is the terrible smell coming from the air conditioning unit in your office is? Human skin flakes appear to be the cause according to a study conducted by Hong Kong Baptist University.

Skin squames act as a source of food for the bacteria that live in air-cooling units and these produce odours, even in dust free air conditioning systems according to the research. This is the first time research has shown that the degradation of skin squames (cells that peel off from the skin surface) in air-cooling units is positively correlated to the complaints of urine-like smell in air-conditioned areas.

The study was led by Dr Lai Ka-man, Associate Professor of the department of biology of HKBU. It found that skin squames shed from the human body can contribute to ammonia (urine-like smell) and volatile fatty acid (body odour) production by bacteria colonising air-cooling units.

People in Hong Kong spend nearly 70% of their time indoors and according to Dr Lai indoor air quality needs to receive more attention as it affects peoples health, well being and productivity. Although it is commonly believed that the bad odour is caused by dirty air conditioning units it can, in fact, occur in ones even without visible dust accumulation.

“For effective long-term odour control, it is important to reduce the amount of skin squames from entering the air-cooling units. To do so, the simplest way is to install an appropriate filter to capture the skin squames in the air. The size of skin squames is generally larger than 10 micrometres (or 0.001 centimetres). A filter that can effectively capture particles less than this size should help improve the odour problem,” said Dr Lai.

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