With poor indoor air quality being estimated to cost two million healthy life years annually throughout Europe alone, Alan Macklin of Elta takes a look at the HealthVent project.
Global warming, the cost of energy, and the environmental impact of the different ways in which we produce our power have made the world increasingly aware of the need to reduce our energy consumption. But, as a result of measures taken to make our homes, schools and offices more energy efficient, indoor environments in which we live and operate are becoming ever more airtight. Whilst this undoubtedly has the desired effect in eliminating draughts and reducing heat loss, one unwanted consequence has been the general deterioration of indoor air quality (IAQ).
It is estimated that people in developed parts of the world will spend up to 90 to 95% of their life indoors. So the quality of the indoor air that we all breathe, is absolutely vital to our health and wellbeing. Research (EnVIE project) has shown that airborne diseases contracted indoors are estimated to cost two million healthy life years annually throughout Europe. More than 50% of these diseases are thought to be caused by indoor exposure to pollutants brought in from the outside. The remainder is probably caused by common indoor pollutants such as building materials, furnishing, equipment, combustion and consumer goods — along with the normal everyday human activity.
Having now developed most of our buildings so that they are keeping us warm and safe with as little adverse effect as possible on the environment, we are starting to realise that we need to shift our focus to the quality of air that we breathe.
We all need well functioning and adequate ventilation so that temperatures and moisture levels inside our buildings are properly regulated. Insufficient and inadequate ventilation causing problems such as dampness, moulds and indoor air pollutants is linked to the loss of health totalling millions of years. People with allergies and respiratory problems and diseases are particularly susceptible to the effects of poor air quality.
HealthVent was a project funded by the EU to develop health-based ventilation guidelines. Started in 2010, the project drew on the expertise of specialists in medical and public-health sciences, engineering, physics, energy, ventilation and other areas — as well as the experiences of people with respiratory diseases. During the course of the project information was collected, analysed and critically assessed to develop effective guidelines for the improvement of the quality of ventilation in buildings. The different ways in which buildings are ventilated and the performance of different ventilation systems were reviewed to identify the improvements necessary to ensure better, healthier and more energy efficient buildings.
Results of research undertaken over the three years were presented at the European Parliament in Brussels in February 2013. The guidelines developed are to be used to improve and to protect the quality of life of all European citizens against poor indoor air quality. Comfort and productivity in offices, workplaces and schools will be increased. Health problems should be reduced, leading to savings in medical costs. At the same time, adherence to the guidelines should also ensure that energy is utilised more efficiently.
However, the HealthVent guidelines identify that ventilation is only one aspect of the air quality problem. After all, better outdoor air quality would also impact on that indoors — reducing or even avoiding the dispersion of contaminants in the first place, would be even more effective. But the guidelines do recommend a move towards a more health-based approach to ventilation. Current EU ventilation standards offer only general guidance on recommended levels of carbon monoxide and moisture. The guidelines rightly point out: ‘Neither EU standards concerning ventilation nor their related ventilation requirements adopted by member states at the national level use health as the criterion for setting ventilation requirements.’
Fan manufacturers have a small part to play in addressing indoor air quality; since fans are at the heart of any ventilation system, it is an important one. The use of HVAC systems to maintain a pre-determined temperature via technology such as heat-recovery systems is a common practice today in making any building comfortable for its occupants. However, real comfort dictates that the means of maintaining that comfort does not impact on the health of the occupants. Fan manufacturers are already going through a period of change brought about by the ErP (Energy-related Products) Directive.
The move towards a philosophy focusing on the health of a building’s occupants calls for yet another shift of emphasis. ‘The green building debate’, a report by LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design), states: ‘Greater insulation, less ventilation and a huge increase in new chemicals and products within new buildings, collectively induce chemical exposures and threats to health never previously experienced in human history.’Along with everyone else who plays a part in constructing or fitting out the interiors of our homes, offices, schools and other buildings, fan manufacturers must be aware of the issues in today’s ‘greener’ interiors and should place a much higher priority on the health of the occupants of those interiors.
Alan Macklin is technical director of Elta Group.