Industry must take air quality issue into its own hands
Published: 02 November, 2016
Despite a growing body of evidence linking rising air pollution to thousands of premature deaths, strong political action over air quality remains in short supply. David Frise of the Building Engineering Services Association says the industry should take the law into its own hands.
The UK Government calculates that rising levels of air pollution account for between 40 000 and 50 000 premature deaths in this country every year. Air pollution increases the severity of asthma attacks, instances of heart failure and certain cancers. It reduces lung capacity, upsetting the balance of nutrients and oxygen in the blood.
The recent report published by the Royal College of Physicians* graphically detailed the long-term health legacy we are creating as a result of our polluted air — not least impaired lung capacity in children that leaves them hampered for life.
There has been a political response to this crisis. The European Commission has proposed new measures aimed at halving the number of deaths from air pollution over the next 15 years by setting tighter restrictions for emissions of pollutants like oxides of nitrogen (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and particulate matter (PM2.5) — all of which are linked to health problems.
However, as this article went to press, there was strong backing for a compromise agreement that would set less ambitious targets for reducing these pollutants — and be less effective at minimising the associated health risks.
On a more local level, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has also jumped in quickly to seize the air-quality baton and is backing the legal action launched by the environmental law firm ClientEarth against the Government’s wholly inadequate ‘plan’ to reduce pollution.
As well as trying to force the UK Government to accept more ambitious air-quality improvements, he plans to impose an ‘ultra-low’ emissions zone from 2020 in a bid to reduce the 42% of CO, 46% of nitrogen oxides and 26% of PM2.5 caused by transport.
Transport has to be the number-one target, but cleaning up the outside air will take decades; waiting for politicians to agree could take even longer. However, the building engineering industry can play a major role in mitigating the worst impacts of this problem right now by ensuring the most harmful outdoor pollutants do not reach building occupants.
Currently, most service and maintenance programmes do not specifically focus on indoor air quality (IAQ). They may include some provision for ventilation hygiene, which might even extend to checking and replacing air filters, but very few people are actually measuring the specific components of IAQ.
Schools are starting to do a bit more because a direct causal link between poor learning and high concentrations of CO2 has been made. There may be CO2 alarms in some buildings, but who measures VOCs or NOX or the wide range of particulate matter you can find inside most city buildings?
And let’s not forget, there are plenty of indoor sources of pollution like fabrics, furniture, gas-fired appliances and paint.
Most professional facilities managers will make an annual inspection of the air-handling units and a visual check of ductwork cleanliness; that could be relatively easily extended to taking samples to measure micro-biological cleanliness. However, the issue, as with most service and maintenance arguments, is cost and what the building owner needs to do to meet minimum statutory requirements. Asking them to extend that to something they have never had to do before and have never been forced to do requires them to make a choice.
Yet, surely this is an easy choice to make. If you want safe, healthy and productive people in your building (and what responsible building owner doesn’t?) then surely a few low-cost maintenance improvements is not asking too much? This problem is now so serious that the property sector (and politicians) must stop compromising.
Through the work of the Building Engineering Services Association IAQ group, we are shaping up technical guidance that includes minimum parameters to keep the process cost-effective, but still meaningful. That includes measuring and monitoring relative humidity (RH), ventilation rates, possible mould build up, temperature, CO2, VOCs, supply-side particulates, NO2 and NOx.
This guidance will also include a building classification system so that IAQ standards are appropriate for the building in question using the high, medium, and low categories contained in the standard BS EN 15780:2011 ‘Ventilation for buildings. Ductwork. Cleanliness of ventilation systems’.
A low risk building, like a storage facility, would only need checking every two years, whereas a hospital is at the other end of the scale and requires far more stringent targets — for obvious reasons.
If we can’t trust governments to get to grips with outdoor pollution. we can still take the task into our own hands by using our skills to make buildings ‘safe havens’ of good air quality.
And there is a powerful argument to put to clients concerned about any potential cost. People spend, on average, 90% of their time indoors. Therefore, providing them with good quality, breathable air has got to be right — morally and financially.
David Frise is head of sustainability at the Building Engineering Services Association.