We’re always complaining about how humid it is in the summer but never complaining about it in the winter, even though the relative humidity in winter is typically higher than it is in the summer.

There’s a reason for that. The colder the air is, the less water it can hold. So 100 percent humidity at 15 degrees doesn’t involve anywhere near as much water vapor as 80 percent humidity at 80 degrees does. That’s why we can see our breath in the winter.

When summer’s humid air gets into our homes and other buildings, it feels as sticky as it does outside. But when winter’s cold, humid air moves in to our nice warm homes, it isn’t as humid anymore – it contains less water vapor. In fact, it’s so dry as to be harmful to things we own such as wooden furniture and musical instruments, which dry out and become brittle and sometimes crack.

It’s also unhealthy for us. We think of the viruses that come round in the winter as being a function of the cold, but they’re not, at least not directly. When it’s cold the indoor humidity is lower, which makes things nice for the cold and the flu. They’re both viruses, and viruses are especially robust in low humidity.

Just how good dry air is for viruses – and, more important, how moist air is bad for them – was illustrated in a CDC study six years ago. With warm indoor air at 23 percent or less humidity, three-fourths of airborne virus particles remained infectious for an hour or more. But when the humidity was only a little higher, 43 percent, only 14 percent of the viruses stayed dangerous, and even then for a much shorter period of time.

That’s why it’s a good idea to have a humidifier or two in the house. Even if you don’t have a humidifier, actions such as showering with the door open can increase indoor humidity. Sending that health-enhancing steam outside via a bathroom fan does no one any good.

House plants help. An aquarium with an aerator helps. The point is to keep indoor air nice and moist.

Warm, moist air also holds scents well. Which makes it useful in ridding oneself of critters larger than the tiny virus.

As I’ve mentioned (and as you may have experienced as well), winter’s cold makes our houses especially inviting to mice. We also endure other visitors to our homes, particularly Asian ladybugs, marmorated stink bugs, and occasionally cockroaches.

None of these creatures is happy around the smell of peppermint.

This year I thought I’d try an experiment involving peppermint oil. This experiment fell well short of scientific rigor, so all I can offer is my anecdotal results.

I got a bottle of pure peppermint oil, which isn’t hard to find, and deployed it two ways. I put a few drops on each of a half-dozen cotton balls and stuck them to the outside of my furnace filter, so that as the air was drawn through the filter it would get nice and pepperminty before getting heated and distributed through the house.

One of my humidity-production devices is a cheap vaporizer, the kind of thing marketed for use in sickrooms, where added humidity is of therapeutic benefit. And it has a little trough above the steam opening, where one might put a bit of some camphor-infused material to further ease symptoms. I filled this trough with peppermint oil. (And a little while later I sopped up most of that oil – there’s such a thing as too much!)

The house took on a nice minty freshness. And the vermin disappeared, skedaddled, returned whence they came.

I don’t know why insects don’t like peppermint, but we’ve known about mice and their distaste for peppermint’s bracing aroma for a while. Peppermint vapor really screws up the mouse’s sense of smell, and without that, little disease-carrying rodents cannot find food, cannot navigate, cannot do much of anything a mouse would find useful.

With the peppermint all vaporized and airborne, it quickly spread throughout the house. Mice that didn’t care to endure it would have to relocate. It seems that they did.

(I do not know if the Vicks commercial mentholated product for use in vaporizers has use in repelling critters. I suppose it might, but peppermint smells less like medicine.)

Vapor also made the news last week, in the form of a new study which I don’t think surprised anyone, certainly no one on the receiving end of its benefits.

Scientists in England selected 886 people who had come to national health service clinics seeking help in quitting smoking. Some were given the nicotine patch. Some were given nicotine-laced gum. And some were given vaping devices and nicotine-infused “juice.”

After a year, those who vaped were twice as likely as the others to have quit smoking.

This surprised me not at all. In the first week of July 2010, I, a longtime heavy smoker, purchased an “e-cigarette” as they were then called. I wasn’t trying to quit smoking, though given the choice I’d just as soon have been a nonsmoker. I brought the gadget home, charged it up (it was one of those that look like a cigarette, with the juice in the filter, the battery in the white part, and even a little LED at the tip that lit up when I drew on it), and gave it a try.

And that was the end of my smoking.

Yes, vaping juice does (in most but not all cases) contain nicotine. But while it’s nicotine that addicts smokers, it’s the other parts of smoke, the tars and poisonous gases, that go on to kill them. Vaping doesn’t have those, just nicotine and flavoring suspended in vegetable glycerin and a little dab of propylene glycol, both of which the FDA has deemed harmless.

To anyone coming from smoking, vaping would of course be the choice, because smoking isn’t just about nicotine. It’s about actions, too. Phone rings, reach for a cigarette. Listening in a conversation, take a puff. Patches and gum don’t provide the activity.

So: water vapor to combat infectious disease, peppermint vapor to drive away vermin, and vaping to ease an addiction. Good stuff.

Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at dep@drippingwithirony.com.

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