October 2, 2017

A breath of fresh air

A comment piece by guest blogger Dr Henry Burridge, from the Faculty of Engineering at Imperial College London.

Unlike the smoke belching from Victorian England’s satanic mills, or the pea soupers that carried away tens of thousands of Londoners in the middle of the last century, the pollution in today’s atmosphere is typically invisible – yet it still poses dramatic risks to health.

In the UK today, nearly 40 million people are living in areas with illegal levels of air pollution. This is much more than an inconvenience – Cancer Research UK estimates that these toxins contribute to 3,500 cases of lung cancer each year. The true extent of the damage wrought by our polluted atmosphere is impossible to quantify – death certificates don’t (yet) cite “air quality” as the cause of death, yet it incontrovertibly contributes to a range of chronic health issues.

This issue is belatedly receiving the it attention it deserves, but while most initiatives so far have focused on outdoor aspects, such as phasing out diesel engines, scant consideration has been given to indoor air quality. Entering our air-conditioned palaces, it’s easy to ignore the invisible hazards that lurk in our homes and offices such as harmful particles from cooking, damp environments, laser printers or the harmful volatile organic compounds sometimes emitted from the building fabric and furniture within.

Indoor pollution presents several complex challenges, including interactions with the outdoor environments, air currents, volatile organic compounds, particulates and biological pollutants. At the same time, we are increasingly aware of the state of our indoor environment, and better able to measure air quality both indoors and outdoors. As a result, building owners and employers are coming under pressure to be seen to be doing something about the problem.

The worry is that people will reach for “sticking plaster” solutions, such as installing more mechanical HVAC or high performance filtration systems which, with their huge energy demands, only add to the problem of pollution by shifting it elsewhere.

Our growing awareness of indoor air quality should make us reject the idea of boxing ourselves into supposedly “clean” and conditioned environments. Instead, our ambition must be to open our buildings as much as possible to an outside environment that is fit for human habitation in the first place.

There is some hope that we can achieve this, with the ban on petrol and diesel vehicles and moves towards lightweight electric vehicles represent an important start on improving urban air quality. But there is much more for us to do, like continuing to promote entirely clean forms of transport such as bicycles.

Initiatives such as the WELL Building Standard and One Planet Living are helping to put employee health and wellbeing at the heart of working and living environments, but to be successful they need architects, designers and engineers, as well as commercial tenants and building owners, to stop viewing air quality as an afterthought, but rather as an integral part of a building’s design.

One of the defining aspects of our history since the industrial revolution has been mankind’s manipulation of the environment to suit its needs, with often unforeseen consequences. In spite of all human invention, we’ve never come close to rivalling the natural environment’s own power to heat, to cool – and to cleanse.

When it comes to tackling our air quality crisis, we therefore need to shift our mindset away from energy-guzzling “quick fixes”. Let us not think of buildings as refuges from a toxic environment, but instead open them out to a world where it is safe and healthy to draw breath.

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Guest blogger, Sustainability, Sustainable strategy and governance

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