Stop talking about indoor air quality

IAQ guide to good practice cover

It is more than five years since the Grenfell Tower disaster; we have had a pandemic driven by an airborne virus and we are now facing a cost-of-living crisis. Nathan Wood asks: what more needs to happen to get people to stop talking about making buildings healthier, safer, and more efficient and take practical action? 

This year’s National Clean Air Day was a high-profile event that showcased dozens of air quality events around the country. It provided compelling evidence of the indoor air quality (IAQ) crisis gripping the country (if more was needed) and the important role played by mechanical ventilation systems in protecting the health and well-being of building occupants.

It was also an extremely frustrating day because, despite the increased profile of this issue, there are still thousands of buildings that put people in harm’s way. We have regulations, but people don’t check that their installations comply – and there is too much wriggle room in the way the regulations are written anyway, which means people are still specifying the cheapest option rather than the right one.

An air monitoring exercise carried out by the national news website Mail Online during Clean Air Day in collaboration with ventilation company Nuaire revealed potentially harmful indoor pollution in several hospitality, transport, and office buildings around London.

Some of the results were described by the journalists as ‘scary’ – with particularly high readings for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and particulate matter (PM). The findings were analysed during a webinar hosted by the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA), which is spearheading a campaign to turn indoor spaces into ‘safe havens’ designed, operated, and maintained to limit human exposure to airborne contaminants, harmful gases, and diseases.

Reluctant
We have been talking about this for years, but the pandemic brought home the importance of IAQ to an extent we have never seen before – yet still building owners and managers seem reluctant to act. What more evidence or motivation do they need?

Research released by Clean Air Day organiser Global Action Plan established for the first time that air pollution affects every major organ in the human body, but that most people think it is only harmful to their lungs.

“49% of people think air pollution is connected to worsening asthma symptoms…and 44% also rightly connect it to poor lung function development, 42% to bronchitis, and 35% to lung cancer,” a Clean Air Day statement said. “However, only 12% of the population associate it with strokes, 10% with dementia, and 18% poor brain development.”

Yet it is “the biggest environmental threat to our health” according to leading air quality and health expert Professor Stephen Holgate of Southampton University.

“Even though we can’t see it, air pollution impacts our health from our first breath to our last,” he said. “When we breathe polluted air, it can inflame the lining of our lungs and get into our bloodstream ending up in the heart and brain.

“Air pollution is a public health crisis.” 

The BESA webinar focused heavily on the need to improve the maintenance and operation of existing ventilation systems, which could be addressed if people paid more attention to the torrent of information now available about the extent and nature of the IAQ problem.

Nuaire board director Stuart Smith said the sites visited by the Mail Online almost certainly had ventilation systems, but they were not doing their job effectively. “Some of the results are staggering with huge spikes in VOC and CO2 readings in popular hospitality venues at relatively quiet times of the day – so we can only imagine what they must be like when they are busier.”

“We are sure these buildings have ventilation systems, but how well maintained and managed are they?”

BESA continues to argue that upgrading ventilation could be tackled as part of the government’s Net Zero agenda, which will require most existing buildings to be refurbished and/or retrofitted with more effective building services technologies.

Employers are also already legally obliged to provide conditions that make their staff feel safe and protected in their workplace. Some are ducking this responsibility because they assume any measures they take will lead to higher energy consumption and push up their running costs. However, this is not an either/or situation and, in fact, joining the two targets together is the best way to deliver all-around building performance improvements that will reduce their overheads.

Nathan Wood
Nathan Wood

Overheating


The fact that the government addressed Parts F and L of the Building Regulations in tandem for the latest revisions that came into effect in June shows that it recognised that measures to improve ventilation should not come at the expense of energy efficiency – and vice versa. It also took the opportunity to produce new standards for reducing overheating in buildings which will also have important consequences for IAQ.

One key technology is mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR). These systems provide air filtration while reducing the amount of energy needed to heat the building, but they depend on competent design and installation – and, critically, ongoing maintenance. In too many cases, some or all these factors are missing.

In the end, it all boils down to mechanical ventilation that is properly designed, installed and, crucially, maintained. It offers a controllable approach that can also make use of filtration to reduce the ingress of pollutants into occupied spaces including the use of HEPA filters and ULPA filters for healthcare settings where IAQ is particularly important.

A range of medical studies have shown that doubling the rate of ventilation reduces the spread of airborne viruses like Covid-19 by around half – and the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends ventilation as a first-line strategy for getting people back to the office.

Numerous studies have shown that the high level of PM2.5 in both our indoor and outdoor air contributes to heart attacks and strokes – and increases the risk of severe asthma attacks and lung cancer.

So, we need to act now and align our air quality targets with the WHO’s, so we do not condemn another whole generation of children to impaired lung function and increasingly severe asthma attacks.

BESA has produced three free guides to help building owners, managers and maintainers address this urgent issue: The Beginner’s Guide to IAQ provides an overview of the problem, and its Guide to Good Practice for IAQ focused on the importance of measuring and monitoring to deliver better health and well-being outcomes. The first was developed in partnership with Mitsubishi Electric and has been downloaded for free more than 2,000 times.

Earlier this year it launched Buildings as Safe Havens – a practical guide, also in partnership with Mitsubishi Electric. This provides a step-by-step approach to getting the most from working with IAQ specialists, so facilities managers and end-users can select the right options for their buildings.

All three guides can be downloaded for free from the link below. 

We have the guidance, and we have the technologies, but we need greater leverage to ensure these measures are more widely adopted. For example, air quality tests should become part of the planning process to ensure more homes are designed to protect occupants from both outdoor and indoor pollution.

The new Environment Act should also be used as a legal mechanism to ensure a wider range of the most harmful particulates are measured and monitored in all buildings including PM10, PM2.5 and below; as well as CO2 levels; ozone; NOx; and VOCs.

The Act could be a vehicle for setting a new standard for health and well-being inside buildings for future generations. People spend more than 90% of their time indoors and we simply cannot afford to miss this opportunity to progress essential and readily available measures that can protect the health, well-being and productivity of this and future generations.

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