The viability of pneumococcus, Type I, sprayed into the atmosphere from a liquid suspension was measured as a function of the relative humidity. When broth, saliva, or 0.5 per cent saline solution is employed as the suspending medium, a very high mortality rate is observed at relative humidities in the vicinity of 50 per cent. However, at humidities above or below this value the microorganisms survive for long periods.
Measurement of the rate of settling of droplets employed in these experiments demonstrated that the disappearance of microorganisms from the air is a true lethal process, rather than a manifestation of aerosol collision processes.
When a saline-free fluid was used, the sharp peak in death rate at intermediate relative humidities disappears.
The lethal effect of intermediate relative humidities on pneumococci atomized from a saline-containing suspension is increased when the particle size of the atomized droplets is increased or when the temperature is raised.
Cultures of hemolytic streptococcus group C and staphylococcus sprayed from a broth medium exhibit the same general survival pattern as a function of relative humidity although the mortality rates are smaller than that of the pneumococcus.
These effects can be explained by assuming the existence of a critical degree of cellular dehydration at which microorganisms become much more sensitive to toxic agents than in states where either more or less water is bound to the cell.
The results presented here may be significant in elucidating certain aspects of the epidemiology of air-borne infections.