This tale is intended as a warning to those of us living in 1970s housing. Check your air ducts to determine whether you have an open duct system!

Shortly after I moved into my 1971 townhouse, I noticed the beginning of a cough. It was winter, so I thought little of it. As time went on, however, my cough increased, step by lethal step. One morning I found myself doubled over the kitchen sink, holding my side where the coughing had displaced a rib. Another time I nearly went off the road when a coughing fit took me while I was driving. What was happening to me?

I began seeing doctors who examined me, shrugged, and ordered various tests. All the tests said I was completely healthy. The doctors prescribed some medications for me, sprays for the nose, inhalers for possible asthma, pills for allergies — all to no avail. Predictably enough, I asked, “If I’m so healthy, how come I’m coughing my insides out?” More shrugs, more medications, and in the end, more coughing.

Finally, I sat down and thought the situation through logically. My problems began when I moved into my house. When I was not running either heat or air conditioning, my coughing lessened. Surely there must be a connection.

A few months previously, I had installed a new air conditioning unit. So I placed a call to my A/C company and explained my concerns, requesting that someone come with a powerful flashlight and this time, take a very close look at the duct system. The man came, did a serious examination of the ducts, and emerged shaking his head. “This is an old-fashioned open system,” he told me. “They used to be very common around Tucson. You’ve been breathing 40-plus years of filth, dust, and probably fiberglass. But at least there’s no asbestos,” he concluded.

At last — the cause of my coughing was identified! But if I had not done some heavy-duty thinking, what might have been the ultimate outcome? One doctor told me that when the body has to work so terribly hard to try to expel a hostile invader — just as my lungs were struggling to cough out the foreign matter — the heart can become overtaxed and simply give out. “If you had not taken the steps you took,” he said matter-of-factly, “you could be dead by now.”

I left the house and while I was gone, my air conditioning company came to clean, disinfect and seal the duct system. It took six weeks for my coughing to ebb, and I remained away from my house the entire time. I am home now; the air is obviously cleaner and I am no longer coughing.

However, recently a neighbor, who lives in a house the same vintage as mine, came to tell me she too was having problems, and to ask me about my experience. Until our conversation, she had never considered that the air in her own home could be poisoning her. I have been thinking that it’s entirely likely other Tucson homeowners might have a similar problem. My asthma doctor commented to me that every month, at least five patients come to him, saying they think their house is killing them.

Check your ductwork. Make sure it’s sealed and that you are breathing clean air, especially in this season of closed houses and air conditioning. It really could be a matter of life or death, as my own experience has confirmed.

Kendra Gaines is an educator and writing consultant. Contact her at