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Air quality – a vote-winner?

In the first of our new guest opinion columns, B&ES head of sustainability David Frise considers the importance of indoor air quality

Local and central government officials have missed (or ignored) the link between outside air pollution and building-related health problems for years.

Within the building services community, we have been pointing out for some time that polluted air does not simply disappear when it reaches a building.

On the contrary, it has a catastrophic impact on indoor air quality.

Yet, while there have been plenty of high-profile efforts to measure outside air pollutants and lots of political grandstanding on the issue, there has been almost total silence on what all this means for the indoor environment.

This is despite the fact that we spend most of our lives indoors.

However, the release of the Environmental Audit Committee’s latest report just before Christmas could mark a significant change of direction.

This group of influential government advisers is now calling for the installation of air filtration in all existing school buildings close to pollution hot spots – 1,000 schools close to major roads.

Their report clearly explains the impact of diesel vehicle emissions; nitrogen dioxide (NOx) and particulate pollution on building occupants.

They said air pollution was now a “public health crisis” causing nearly as many deaths as smoking in the UK every year – about 29,000.

They want changes made to the National Planning Policy Framework and new guidance to ensure local authorities prioritise IAQ before granting planning permission for new schools, hospitals and clinics.

NOx is known to cause inflammation of the airways, reduce lung function and exacerbate asthma, while particulates are linked to heart and lung diseases as well as certain cancers.

The committee also pointed out that the problem had become much worse because of the promotion of diesel vehicles in a bid to cut CO2 emissions.

Last year, B&ES speakers addressed the Healthcare Estates conference in Manchester, where it was agreed that, despite the desperate need for cost savings across the NHS, building systems are rarely inspected, serviced or updated.

The NHS is already at the forefront of the general election campaign – and, as usual, the arguments are all about funding. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if the debate could be a bit broader and bit more intelligent?

There is, therefore, a great opportunity here to ram home the message that, while ventilation and air conditioning systems may be ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and the air we breathe is invisible, that does not make the link between airborne pollutants and increasing rates of respiratory disease less obvious.

Current NHS technical design guidance is exclusively focused on managing the risk posed by the transmission of infections inside a building, again paying no heed to the dangers lurking outside.

However, the building engineering services industry has a wide range of solutions to offer including filtration — but also other (mainly low-cost) improvements, such as upgrading fans and simple maintenance.

These could not only reduce health risks to building occupants, but also do it in a way that improves the overall efficiency of the ventilation or cooling – and so cut running costs significantly. These savings could be diverted into frontline patient care.

Save lives and save money –
now surely that’s got to be a vote-winner?

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