A bid to clear the air in the UK
Thursday, February 23, 2017
In the U.K., pollution has become something of a political hot potato, thrusting the HVAC industry's role in raising standards of indoor air quality (IAQ) into the spotlight. Now, campaigners want there to be a new Clean Air Act — the legislation was first brought in 60 years ago in a bid to see off the famous London smog that had created poor visibility and breathing difficulties in the postwar period.
The HVAC industry wants new standards for IAQ enshrined in the new legislation. Clean buildings, the industry argues, should be as much a part of the fight against pollution as outdoor clean air zones.
In addition, the European Commission has issued a "final warning" to the U.K. to reduce nitrogen oxide pollution, or risk being taken to court and fined by the Commission. James Thornton, the CEO of campaigning green law group ClientEarth, puts the position succinctly: "The government is under pressure from all sides to stop dithering and act decisively to meet its moral and legal obligations to clean up our unhealthy air."
Concern over the U.K.'s air quality levels had been steadily mounting for some time, but as I wrote last spring, it was the publication of a damning report by noted medical body The Royal College of Physicians that propelled the problem of polluted Britain into the national media headlines.
The report — "Every breath we take: The lifelong impact of air pollution" — condemning the health risks of poor air quality was no fake news or clickbait scaremongering. This was the country's top respiratory doctors highlighting the part pollution played in a spectrum of health risks.
The report was shocking in its use of statistics — drawing a link to 40,000 fatalities due to outdoor air pollution in the U.K. each year, with more linked to indoor pollutants. But beyond that, air pollution was linked to a vast array of different health risks including cancer, asthma, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and changes linked to dementia.
As I also noted at the time, the report highlighted that while the risks from diesel were starting to be recognized and regulated, there were few standards in place for indoor air quality. In fact, little has been done in either national building regulations or local environmental regulations to regulate, limit or even measure the problem.
Hot on the heels of this report came the news that ClientEarth was taking the Westminster government to court for serially missing the EC-imposed air-quality targets.
As we begin 2017, the efforts of the campaigners have accelerated and focused particularly on the need for a new Clean Air Act, setting national regulations in place to put a brake on the rising pollution levels. The voices calling for the new Act comprise a pretty powerful lobby, taking in the medical fraternity in the shape of the Royal College of Physicians and the British Lung Foundation; together with environmental groups Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and ClientEarth.
They describe their goal as putting onto the statute books "the most ambitious air-quality legislation in Europe," slashing pollution and taking diesel vehicles out of the hotspots of towns and cities.
In parallel to the Clean Air Act campaigning, lawyers at ClientEarth are continuing to put the U.K. government on the rack over its air-quality legal duties. Last November, Supreme Court Judge Mr Justice Garnham ruled that the government's 2015 Air Quality Plan had failed to comply with the relevant EU directives.
He also agreed with ClientEarth's allegation that the Environment Secretary had failed to take measures that would bring the U.K. into compliance with the law "as soon as possible" and said that ministers knew they were being "over optimistic" in their modelling of pollution. The U.K. government now has to come up with draft plans for bringing down pollution levels by April 24.
It is into this mounting clamor that the HVAC industry wants to add its voice — and its technology — arguing that the role of buildings can be to provide a ‘"safe haven" for occupants from the outdoor air, literally "stopping pollution at the front door."
Importantly, argue groups such as the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA), making changes to IAQ standards can be done quickly, effectively and cost-effectively.
"People spend more than 80 percent of their time indoors, and there is still a lot more we can do to improve indoor air quality," says BESA chief executive Paul McLaughlin. "The general public already understands the link between good productivity and temperature inside buildings — we now need to stress that the same principle should apply to air quality."
McLaughlin points out that the outdoor and indoor pollution measures can take place in parallel.
"Reducing toxic emissions from vehicles and industrial processes is vital, but will take many years to produce results and involve major long-term investment," he said. "Tackling building ventilation is a quick and relatively painless process, and a well-sealed building envelope combined with effective filtration of incoming air can reduce particle penetration by 78 percent."
And the added benefit, he stresses, is that much of the preparatory work has already been done with regard to buildings.
"Considerable investment has already been made in improving the airtightness of buildings to reduce energy consumption," McLaughlin said. "That same process can be used to manage air quality."
However, the major challenge is that current awareness about IAQ measures among building owners and operators in the U.K. is low. BESA estimates that while many will have annual ventilation hygiene checks, and some will go as far as to extend the maintenance regime to cleaning and replacing air filters, few building managers are specifically measuring air quality, so they don't know the extent of the problem.
In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan's administration is bringing in radical initiatives for outdoor pollution, such as charging older diesel cars for entering the city's streets. The so-called T-charge (or toxicity charge) will levy a £10 fee from October on all diesel vehicles over 10 years old entering the capital.
"Londoners overwhelmingly support my plans to introduce this £10 charge because they feel when it comes to battling pollution the time for action is now," Khan said. "I will continue to do everything in my power to help protect the health of Londoners and clean our filthy air. But now is the time for Government to show real leadership and join me by introducing a diesel scrappage fund and bring in the new Clean Air Act we desperately need."
That Clean Air Act, says the HVAC industry, should tackle air quality both indoors and outdoors, with new legislation for buildings parallel to that for vehicles. It is nothing less than the health of our population at stake, so it is up to industry voices to shout about it.
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