The subject of air pollution has been all over the news in the U.K. in recent weeks, driven by the campaigning law group Client Earth's quest to hold the Westminster government accountable for its failure to meet air quality targets.

We have a general election coming up soon in the U.K., and the need to put the work of civil servants on hold just before election time was used as an excuse for not issuing long-expected proposals for the Clean Air Act. But that excuse wasn't good enough for the tenacious lawyers at Client Earth, so they challenged the decision in court and ultimately succeeded in forcing the government to publish their Clean Air consultation.

When the consultation came out, there were some nods toward reducing pollution with proposals for clean air zones and tax incentives for switching away from diesel vehicles. However, the whole subject of indoor air quality (IAQ) was completely overlooked — despite the fact that most estimates suggest that people spend 80 percent of their time indoors and only 20 percent outdoors.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan proclaimed himself seriously underwhelmed.

"We've dragged the government kicking and screaming through the courts to produce these belated proposals but they are toothless and woefully inadequate," Khan said.

This has left the HVAC industry surprised, disappointed and frustrated, since many had seen the consultation as an unparalleled opportunity to embed IAQ measures into the fabric of building standards. Industry experts had planned to utilize the extensive technological arsenal of air movement and filtration to tackle air quality — "stopping pollution at the door," as it has been coined.

Paul McLaughlin, chief executive of the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA), captured the industry mood.

"Tackling pollution is an extremely difficult issue we should not underestimate the challenge facing the government," McLaughlin said. "It is hard to imagine anything more politically sensitive and politicians face an army of legal experts and pressure groups. However, the proposals it has put out for consultation are very disappointing."

The lack of policy attention to IAQ is particularly worrying in the light of the latest mortality statistics from The World Health Organization (WHO), which ranks the countries of the world by the number of deaths due to air pollution.

The results show that the U.K. is mid-table in Europe, with a figure of 25.7 deaths per 100,000 people due to air pollution. On the face of it, mid-table might seem respectable, but this figure is a staggering 64 times higher than the country with the best results Sweden (0.4 deaths per 100,000). It is also significantly higher than the US, which recorded an average 12.1 deaths per 100,000.

But, says BESA, this should provide an opportunity for the HVAC industry to take charge.

"Continual delay and prevarication outside could be mitigated by decisive action inside," McLaughlin said. "Building engineers already have multiple solutions to create internal clean air zones where building occupants can be protected as soon as they close the door. ... The challenge is to combine a well-sealed building envelope that reduces particle penetration with adequate 'cleaned' air change rates to dilute contaminants, while also monitoring internal sources like paint, perfume, soft furnishings and carpets that can emit VOCs."

Faced with the severity and urgency of the air pollution problem and in the absence of any real policy direction HVAC groups within the U.K. and Europe have sought to take matters into their own hands and to mount their own drive for change.

BESA believes that since inspections of air-handling units and visual checks of ductwork cleanliness are already regularly carried out, they could easily be extended to include sampling that measures microbiological cleanliness, for example.

"Mechanical ventilation will help protect building occupants from rising pollution levels outside, but only if those systems are regularly checked and maintained," McLaughlin said. "The key is getting the message across that this is an essential process and that it can deliver very quick results at low cost while the longer-term plan to clean up the outside air grinds on. The government could help by making this part of its clean air consultation and by considering IAQ in any future legislation."

So it is seizing the initiative and seeking cross-industry co-operation for the U.K. industry's first comprehensive IAQ standard.

"This would help engineers and their clients put an IAQ strategy in place and demonstrate to the government and building managers how this problem can be tackled," McLaughlin said.

But interestingly, in a parallel move, European ventilation body EVIA is pushing for improved IAQ standards by another route namely by seeking changes to the European Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), which is currently under review, with IAQ-specific measures.

"The EPBD has so far been implemented without giving enough consideration to indoor air quality and thermal comfort (especially in retrofitted buildings)," EVIA said. "Due to the increasing air tightness of buildings, it is essential to ensure that sufficient fresh air is introduced to keep occupants healthy and to protect the building condition especially adverse effect from moisture."

Its first key requirement is to call for compulsory Energy Performance Certificates to include measurement of IAQ. To achieve this, EVIA urges national governments to set minimum IAQ requirements and minimum ventilation airflow. Its second key requirement is to make regular ventilation inspection mandatory. This, EVIA notes, will achieve both air quality and energy improvements.

The more we learn about the effects of air pollution with academic research throwing up links to not only health risks, but also lifestyle issues such as reduced sleep the more important it seems that the HVAC industry should accelerate the adoption of standards and take charge.