Britain On High Pollution Alert

Posted in Air Hygiene on February 15, 2017

2017 is already looking like a big year for air pollution.

The London Mayor Sadiq Khan has already had to issue his first 'Very High' or 'Black level' alert as, once again, the capital breached its clean air targets for the entire year – in the first week of January! Just as it did in 2016...and will most likely do again next year.

Describing London's air as "shameful" and "toxic", the Mayor said: "This is the highest level of alert and everyone - from the most vulnerable to the physically fit - may need to take precautions to protect themselves from the filthy air."

The following week there was a chorus of concerned parents highlighting the risks faced by their children exposed to soaring levels of contaminated air in school buildings and playgrounds close to busy roads. Rising instances of asthma and other respiratory diseases are evidence of a serious health crisis in our country.

The immediate political reaction was a call for more powers to reduce the amount of diesel vehicles on the streets including raising taxes on the most polluting cars. Mr Khan also called for a new Clean Air Act "that finally tackles this problem and means that people don't have to be afraid of the air we breathe".

Dementia link
Research showing a link between traffic pollution and Alzheimer's disease was also published by Lancaster, Oxford and Manchester Universities in January. The study found that the risk of dementia increases the closer you live to a major arterial road.

This is a huge problem for the country and is having a profound impact on our health service. It is understandable that politicians want to focus on traffic, but there is also a big role for our industry to play. More and more, the general public is coming to recognise that we can contribute to human health and well-being – and building owners are starting to put a financial value on that.

A World Green Building Council (WGBC) study calculated that energy efficiency was only responsible for an average saving of around £6 per m2 per year to building owners. However, if a building performs well it can contribute to staff retention, which is worth close to £18 per m2, and reducing sickness through improved air quality would save an employer £26 per m2 per annum.

The big business winner, though, is productivity. If the working environment leads to a modest 5% improvement, that could be worth a whopping £307 per m2, according to the WGBC's research. There is no doubt that better air quality is crucial to worker productivity with many studies showing that high levels of contaminants and CO2 in the air leading to poor concentration levels.

Biological pollutants can cause coughing, sneezing, dizziness, shortness of breath and even fevers; while excess chemicals in the air can lead to serious respiratory problems and lung disease. They also exacerbate existing heart conditions and are particularly harmful to children, the elderly and infirm.

Gary Fuller, senior lecturer at King's College London, believes increasing concentrations of NOx – nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – in particular demonstrates "an utter failure of policy" in terms of the government's response to pollution.

NOx is a product of combustion taking place when nitrogen is present and so is emitted by vehicle engines and also by heating equipment. The World Health Organisation says there is no safe limit for this type of airborne particulate that is small enough to make its way into the deepest recesses of the human lungs – and which has been linked with several types of cancer.

The rise in the amount of wood burning – in stoves and biomass boilers – has also dramatically increased the amount of larger particulates (PM10) in the air that contribute to smog.

Dejan Mumovic of University College London (UCL) says this build-up of poor air quality is harming the ability of children to learn in schools. Experiments have also shown a link between exposure to NOx and asthma attacks, he says, with serious long-term quality of life implications and rising healthcare costs.

The ventilation hygiene sector cannot solve the world's growing pollution problem, but people spend more than 80% of their time indoors and we make buildings safer and healthier by ensuring the systems designed to manage air changes are well maintained. Filters are also crucial in the battle to keep rising external pollution out of buildings, but if they are not maintained they quickly become ineffective. Whereas in the past ventilation hygiene companies have been the unseen and unsung heroes in the war on poor air quality; growing awareness of the impact of airborne pollutants on indoor health and well-being is an opportunity to publicise the important role our industry has to play and its contribution to society.

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