Social housing crisis keeps ventilation in the spotlight

Nathan Wood and Rosamund Kissi-Debrah
Nathan Wood of BESA and Rosamund Kissi-Debrah

An unprecedented combination of public outrage and government intervention is ramping up the pressure on landlords to tackle the health problems caused by poor ventilation in their buildings, according to Graeme Fox, Technical Director at the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).

The role of building ventilation in reducing the risk of disease transmission and alleviating health problems linked to poor indoor air quality (IAQ) has been repeatedly highlighted in the wake of the pandemic and has become even higher profile since the death of Awaab Ishak last year.

Rochdale Coroner’s Court ruled that the two-year-old’s tragic death was directly linked to his exposure to damp and mould in a poorly ventilated flat. One of the amendments to the newly revised Social Housing Bill currently being considered by Parliament has been dubbed ‘Awaab’s Law’.

It requires social landlords to investigate and fix reported hazards within a specified time frame or rehouse tenants if their home cannot be made safe. This positions good ventilation right at the heart of the building safety agenda as it acknowledges that many poorly ventilated homes are not fit for human habitation.

At the same time, MPs are debating ‘Ella’s Law’ – the Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill – which has already been approved by the House of Lords. It is named after Ella Kissi-Debrah who died from a severe asthma attack in 2013 and is the first person in the UK to have air pollution stated on her death certificate.

Responsibilities

The Bill sets out the responsibilities of all building operators to monitor and report on the quality of air in their buildings. It states that indoor targets must be in line with the latest guidance from the World Health Organisation (WHO) including those for ultrafine particles and nitrogen dioxide.

The London Assembly has already voted unanimously to support Ella’s Law and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Minister, Lord Benyon, said the government already had the power to enforce its measures through the legal framework created by the renewed Environment Act 2021.

Ella’s mother, the air quality campaigner and WHO child health advocate Rosamund Adoo Kissi-Debrah, said that people would continue to die unless governments and the ventilation industry worked together to improve IAQ.

“The NHS will not be able to reduce its waiting lists until we clean up our air,” she said. “It is also much easier to control the indoor air than the outdoor, so tackling IAQ is a great way to give people back power over their own environment and save lives.”

The WHO has established that 3.8 million premature deaths worldwide are linked to poor indoor air every year out of the total of 8.7 million from general air pollution.

“We have to be clear about this, bad IAQ leads directly to deaths,” said Rosamund, who is Honorary President of BESA’s Health & Well-being in Buildings group. “Everyone should have the right to breathe clean air.”

The growing and powerful body of evidence that establishes the link between health problems and poor IAQ was given even greater credence by England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty.

In his 2022 annual report, he called for IAQ to be made a medical priority because it was becoming “an increasing proportion of the overall problem” as progress is made on tackling outdoor pollution.

Professor Whitty made 15 recommendations in his report including ensuring effective ventilation while simultaneously minimising energy use and heat loss. He also called for more research into tackling indoor air pollution including finding ways to reduce contaminant sources, adding that the necessary technical solutions were widely available.

His report stated that people spend around 80% of their time indoors and often had no choice over where to spend that time, but there had been far less research and investment in IAQ in comparison to outdoor pollution.

He showed that the case for increased investment in ventilation solutions was persuasive and his intervention could be a real turning point for the industry especially as he has also called for offices and public buildings, including schools, supermarkets, and hospitals, to be regularly monitored for indoor air pollutants.

He believes that analysing the IAQ of many buildings should be made “standard practice” and that more investment is needed to tackle the problem in homes. He also called for investment in creating “indoor emission inventories” as part of a “roadmap to cleaner indoor air.”

Oblivious

“The lack of research makes it hard for governments to target policies and controls, while building owners may be oblivious to the health risks and how to reduce them,” said Professor Whitty.

He acknowledged that IAQ was a complex problem because it varies dramatically from one building to another. The fact that the level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) present can differ by a factor of 1,000 in identical houses on the same street because of different occupant behaviour or ventilation systems illustrates his point.

However, we are now well placed to assess the scale and nature of the challenge, including analysing the cocktail of contaminants that can lead to indoor air being many times more polluted than the outdoors as called for by Professor Whitty. However, showing someone that they have a problem is only the start. They must then be shown how to address the problem through competent professional advice and the use of proven solutions.

This brings the work of our industry into sharp focus. We have an opportunity but also a responsibility to help landlords and other property professionals address the difficulties they face in making residential and commercial buildings both healthy and safe, and in the worst cases, fit for human occupation again.

There has never been such focus on the role of ventilation in buildings, but equally we have never had access to so much technology and expertise with which to address the issue.

In her foreword to BESA’s publication: ‘Buildings as Safe Havens – a practical guide to solutions’, Professor Cath Noakes OBE said ventilation was “the most overlooked building safety issue”.

“Covid-19 has been shown to be transmitted through the air. Even if only 10% of all Covid-19 related deaths could be directly attributed to the failure to adequately ventilate indoor spaces, that would be more than 15,000 since the start of the pandemic – a shocking statistic that should make everyone sit up and take notice,” said Professor Noakes, who is Professor of Environmental Engineering for Buildings at the University of Leeds.

Her work as part of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) during the pandemic was widely applauded for helping to improve understanding of how better building ventilation reduces the spread of disease in indoor spaces.

She said the most significant finding made by SAGE’s Environment and Modelling Group, which she co-chaired, was that far too many of UK buildings are simply under-ventilated despite clear guidelines and regulatory requirements. 

Strategy

Most buildings do not have any active ventilation management. At the top end of the market, the issue is well understood, and expertise is on hand to put best practice into effect, but we must urgently find ways of helping the thousands of buildings that have no ventilation strategy and suffer from a lack information and expertise – not least social housing landlords who will now be forced to take proper action over this issue.

BESA’s ‘Safe Havens’ campaign has led to better awareness and a suite of free guidance to help improve competence and compliance across the ventilation industry – while also broadening the pool of expertise to take on this massive task by turning what we have learned about making buildings more infection resilient into practical measures.

The Association is now embarked on a new programme of technical work looking into the most up-to-date measures available for dealing with the impact of mould and damp with guidance planned for later this year.

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