Upping the ante on indoor air quality
Thursday, July 27, 2017
The debate around indoor air quality in the UK has gathered momentum in the face of an apparent reluctance by the British government to grasp the connection between indoor and outdoor pollution.
This week, the government put car manufacturers on notice that it intends to ban the sale of diesel and petrol vehicles by 2040, as part of a package of new clean air measures. The measure has immediately drawn criticism from campaigners who argue that more urgent action needs to be taken now to improve air quality, which has been identified as contributing to as many as 40,000 deaths a year in the UK.
The government is currently facing a court case in the European Court of Justice for its consistent failure to meet agreed-upon reductions in air pollution. The campaigning law group ClientEarth, which brought the case condemned the measures as a "shabby rewrite."
"The court ordered action by the UK to obey its own laws as soon as possible. This plan kicks the can down the road yet again," ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton said. "The 2040 ban, while important, is a diversionary tactic and doesn't deal with the public health emergency caused by illegal polluted air now."
Professor Neena Modi, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, one of the health bodies that first revealed the scale of disease caused by pollution, said the fact that the plan "still lacks sufficiently strong measures to clean our air is frankly inexcusable."
The lack of firm government action is leading the HVAC industry to up the ante in both lobbying and policy.
Experts in the industry point to the fact that indoor air quality (IAQ) improvements represent a readily achievable short-term measure to reduce the effects of air pollution. They also point to the ability of buildings to be developed into "safe havens" from outdoor pollution.
Schools particularly, it is argued, can help protect their occupants from the harmful effects of diesel pollution in nearby busy roads with appropriate ventilation and filtration. At the same time, improved air quality will also improve cognition for the pupils, as has been proven by recent academic studies.
But the government has so far proved resistant to making the link between indoor and outdoor pollution, with the policy framework focused on nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from vehicles, rather than overall air quality.
The Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) has sought to galvanize industry action, with the proposal to create what is claimed to be the first comprehensive standard in the country. BESA recently convened a gathering of IAQ stakeholders to put in place the foundations for such a standard.
The event was noteworthy for the consensus from a number of speakers that urgent and positive action was required to embed IAQ into the consciousness of policymakers and public alike — and into the standards framework.
One of the most promising initiatives is the proposal that developers are required to achieve an agreed standard of IAQ to obtain planning permission for new buildings. Campaign group Clean Air in London has actively lobbied London Mayor Sadiq Khan to include IAQ levels in his revised London Plan for buildings over a certain size.
The campaigner's chief executive, Simon Birkett, told the audience that he believes such embedding of IAQ could be a game-changer for reducing the effects of air pollution.
On a wider scale, Birkett has called for a new national Clean Air Act to include IAQ measures within its framework. The original Clean Air Act was conceived in 1956 to regulate the burning of domestic coal fires, which had caused the choking "smogs" in London and other cities. Arguably there hasn't been a wholesale reappraisal of the legislation, in the light of medical research, since.
Birkett and BESA contend that improvements to IAQ are the low-hanging fruit of pollution reduction.
"People spend about 90 percent of their time indoors, and the cost of filtration is about 10 percent of the cost of actually getting air into the building," Birkett told the audience, "The cost of filters is tiny compared the impact of poor air quality on people's health and productivity."
He made clear that poor air quality has a definite effect on health: "The latest research shows that everyone who has a heart attack or a stroke in London dies two or so years early because of the effects of air pollution."
He also urged the industry to bring its expertise to bear on the policymakers
"The challenge is that the knowledge [outside of HVAC] on indoor air quality is where the knowledge on outdoor pollution was five years ago — few hospitals for instance currently comply with indoor air quality standards," Birkett said.
The foundation work on the new industry IAQ standard is now under way. Among the main considerations are to define which pollutants should be monitored — the government's obsession with NOx and an over-reliance on CO2 as a measure were both cited as concerns — and to embed a requirement for regular monitoring. Another key area is the need for training that embraces the fact that IAQ straddles conventional M&E style disciplines and reaches into "softer" areas such as well-being.
But perhaps the most intriguing among the proposals was to design the standard so that buildings could benchmark against each other on their air quality in bandings from A-E, in the same way they currently are on energy efficiency.
The stakeholders agreed that this sort of transparency could provide a real commercial incentive for building owners to improve their IAQ measures. In the absence of government pressure, the HVAC industry could use the power of the market to help drive change.
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