Almost overnight, air quality has become a big issue in the U.K. Whether it is the government being "sued" by environmental law group Client Earth for again missing its air-quality targets, or the prime minister being forced to defend his government's record on pollution in Parliament, or even Greenpeace activists scaling the landmark Nelson's Column to dramatically draw attention to the issues — air quality seems to be everywhere.

The moves follow closely on the heels of the report from high-profile medical groups the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (which I wrote about last month) that underlined in stark terms the problems faced by the U.K. The report — "Every breath we take: The lifelong impact of air pollution"— links 40,000 fatalities to outdoor air pollution in the U.K. each year, with more linked to indoor pollutants.

Beyond that, the medics concluded air pollution plays a role in many major health challenges including cancer, asthma, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and changes linked to dementia. At the same time, the report noted that when it comes to indoor air quality, there are few building regulations or local authority regulations to regulate, limit or even measure the problem.

The reality for the U.K. is stark — the country has been in breach of EU air quality limits for more than five years, and the government faces hundreds of millions of pounds in fines from the European Supreme Court.

The HVAC industry's challenge is to build on the profile and to ensure indoor air quality is not overshadowed by the emphasis on outdoor pollution — which, thanks to the EU car emission test scandals of recent months, is very much in the news.

But the latest report this week from a cross-party group of MPs on the subject of air quality gives some hope for indoor pollution issues. The report grabbed more headlines for referring to the state of air quality as a "public health emergency."

"The U.K. has made significant progress in improving air quality over a number of decades," the report states. "Emissions have declined steeply, although the rate of reduction is leveling off. With the exception of NO2, pollutant levels are low enough to meet legal limits, but emissions remain sufficient to cause health problems as well as harming the environment."

The MPs call for a true cross-government approach to tackling the problem, through policy and standards. They called for Defra (the government department of the environment, food and rural affairs) to increase its scope.

"If the full health and environmental benefits of cleaner air are to be achieved, Defra must set out plans to cut emissions of all air pollutants and from all sources, including from the transport, industry, energy and farming sectors," the report states. "Plans must aim to clean up indoor as well as outdoor air. We recommend that the Department publish by the end of 2016 a comprehensive strategy for improving air quality and report annually to Parliament on progress in delivering its objectives."

Within that government context, the HVAC industry in the U.K. is determined to emphasize the issue of indoor air quality and its part in improving it.

David Frise, head of sustainability at the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA), says the industry has been waiting a long time for the medical profession to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem inside buildings.

"There is no shortage of research looking at outdoor pollution, but as the situation worsens outside so does the impact on human health inside where we spend 90 percent of our time," Frise said.

In fact, BESA thinks IAQ should do the job of maintaining a healthy environment indoors, as well as stop the outdoor pollution "at the door." BESA maintains it is possible to achieve a 78 percent reduction in particle penetration with a well-sealed building envelope and effective ventilation and filtration of incoming supply air.

The success of the U.K. government's drive to improve housing energy efficiency, via improved insulation and draft proofing, has also had an impact on IAQ — because adequate ventilation has not gone hand-in-hand with the increased air-tightness. Inadequate ventilation in increasingly airtight buildings can raise indoor pollutant levels by not bringing in enough outdoor air to dilute emissions from indoor sources and by not carrying indoor air pollutants out of the space.

Thus, building services companies should be bidding to turn buildings into "safe havens" with effective filtration and ventilation, BESA believes.

"If the government has lost control of outdoor pollution," says Giuseppe Borgese, chair of BESA's IAQ action group, "could the HVAC industry protect building occupants from its worst effects?"

This makes ventilation a health and welfare issue as well as a comfort issue. But this requires full buy-in during the design and construction stage, according to Kevin Munson, managing director of manufacturer Ruskin Air Management.

"Too often in the past we have looked on with dismay as key design features of the ventilation system have been undermined by short-term, cost-cutting decisions, usually made late in the process, knowing only too well that the building occupants will suffer as a result," Munson said.

He believes the ventilation system should meet the basic brief of reducing overheating and maintaining good IAQ all year round without increasing costs, or driving up carbon emissions. However, he notes, the reality is often far from the ideal.

"Far too often they fall short of these performance targets because of the short-term thinking that leads to damaging design compromises," Munson said.

Frise concludes by saying that while contractors have a suite of techniques at their disposal to mitigate the impact of poor IAQ, any improvements will only come with the buy-in of the specifier.

"What we need now is compelling evidence to encourage building owners and managers to face up to their responsibilities in this area," he says. "The Royal College of Physicians report and follow-up research may be just what we have been waiting for."

With this weight of medical evidence and an increasing public awareness of the risks, U.K. policymakers now appear to be driving — or being driven — toward changes in building regulations and standards that will change indoor air quality for the better. It is up to the HVAC industry to lobby for these changes and to be in a position to deliver them on the ground.