Take action - and responsibility
At the BESA National Conference in November 2019, the building services sector was reminded what a crucial role it plays in delivering healthy environments.
The technical work of the building engineering community can only be properly successful and valued if it reflects what our society needs from us.
This point came across strongly during the BESA National Conference held late last year where the UK’s first World Health Organisation (WHO) advocate for health & air quality threw down a gauntlet to the industry in no uncertain terms.
Rosamund Adoo Kissi-Debrah delivered an impassioned plea asking our industry to do more to protect people inside buildings from the worst impacts of air pollution – and reminded us all that everything we do has consequences for other people.
BESA’s chief executive officer David Frise also reflected on the importance of people taking responsibility for their actions. In his opening address to the conference, he referred to one of the most damning findings of last year’s Hackitt Review where the wider construction sector was castigated for a “cultural malaise” that meant people were far too quick to pass blame on to others and to play fast and loose with their moral, social and financial obligations.
Rosamund spoke movingly about the death of her daughter Ella in 2013 following a series of acute asthma attacks that were subsequently linked to spikes in pollution close to her home. A second coroner’s inquest into Ella’s death may result in her becoming the first person in the world to have air pollution recorded on her death certificate. This is despite the fact that it is estimated 40,000 people in the UK alone die every year from causes linked to air pollution – and 8.8 million worldwide.
New research carried out by Southampton University professor Stephen Holgate, a world authority on asthma, revealed that indoor air quality (IAQ) can be 13 times worse than outside air, but that it can be controlled through a combination of improved building systems and occupant behaviour.
Professor Holgate is also leading a review into IAQ on behalf of the Royal College of Physicians and was the person who first identified that airborne contaminants may have been responsible for Ella’s death.
“People feel sorry for me, but they don’t seem to think this problem has got anything to do with them,” Rosamund told the BESA Conference. “Yet every action we take has a consequence for someone else so, please, don’t cut corners when it comes to your very important projects – and don’t look for loopholes in standards and regulations.”
BESA President John Norfolk told the conference that pollution was “a complex and frightening issue – arguably our most pressing health emergency” and David Frise said it was a scandal that a child born today would live for two years less than previous generations because of air pollution.
“There is this strange perception in the UK that outside air is, in some way, ‘organic’, so natural ventilation must be the answer,” he said. “Air that is filtered and supplied by mechanical ventilation is seen as suspicious or ‘genetically modified’. This is leading to a number of impractical and potentially harmful solutions.
”Asthma is the number one childhood illness in the UK with one child admitted to hospital every 20 minutes with an asthma attack. Three people die from the condition every day “and at least two of those deaths are avoidable”, according to the Ella Roberta Foundation (ellaroberta.org), which was set up by Rosamund in memory of her daughter.
Over 12 million people across the UK live with a lung condition. Breathing is already difficult for them and pollution often makes it even worse. Children are particularly vulnerable as their lungs are still developing. Living near a main road effectively means that a child is suffering the same effects as passively smoking 10 cigarettes a day.
Air pollution is at illegal and unsafe levels in 169 local authorities across the UK, according to the WHO and the British Lung Foundation has labelled pollution as Britain’s greatest health emergency costing our economy upwards of £20 billion a year, largely due to the additional burden on the NHS.
During the conference, Rosamund helped to launch a campaign for ‘Building Safe Havens’ that will be championed by the BESA Health & Wellbeing in Buildings (H&WB) group throughout 2020. It calls for central government; local authorities; building owners and their facilities managers to work with the building engineering sector to establish buildings as clean air zones protecting occupants from the worst of outdoor pollution.
The principle being that, if we can control temperature and humidity indoors, surely we can also do a better job of managing harmful pollutants, including PM2.5 and smaller, that are proven to have a detrimental impact on human health.
With people spending between 80 and 90% of their time indoors, IAQ is one of the country’s most pressing health issues. Many UK cities are trying to address pollution from transport with low emission zones, but it will be a long time before roads like London’s South Circular – close to where Ella lived and along which she travelled to school – are safe for asthma sufferers.
The question posed to the BESA Conference was: Could we not have done more to protect Ella when she was at home or in school?
The H&WB group’s chair Nathan Wood told the conference that the industry now has a wide range of solutions to offer including filtration; air purifiers that kill airborne pathogens and environmentally friendly probiotic cleaners as well as digital systems that enable us to measure and monitor pollutants more accurately in real time and link those results using wireless technology directly to automated ventilation systems.
There are also many other (mainly low cost) improvements FMs can be making now, such as upgrading fans and basic maintenance tasks – many of which have been cut back in an attempt to reduce costs.
A new filtration standard (ISO16890) means building engineers can tackle even the very smallest particulates including PM1 (the smallest easily measurable), which has been identified as a Group One carcinogen by the WHO and was linked in recent studies to early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
“There are basic cost-effective and proven solutions available. The key is not to fall for the glamorous sales pitches, but to seek out the facts and real life case studies,” said Mr Wood, who is managing director of Farmwood M&E.
He challenged the new government to play its part by not missing “a once in a generation opportunity to enshrine IAQ in law” by revising the proposed Environment Bill to make sure this crucial aspect is included.
“With the issue of outdoor pollution likely to take many years to address fully, our industry is more than capable of ensuring many more buildings can be set up as safe havens now. This will give people a valuable measure of protection during the 80/90% they spend indoors. That is a task and a responsibility we should all be happy to accept.”
For more information about the BESA Health & Wellbeing in Buildings group contact: ewen.rose@theBESA.com