Ensuring all buildings are as efficient as possible

Russell Beattie, chief executive at FETA, tackles the issue of indoor air quality and the importance of heating and ventilation systems in ensuring buildings are as energy efficient as possible

It is often said that a good football referee is one that is barely noticed during the game. We could apply a similar logic to indoor air quality (IAQ), which refers to the air quality within and around buildings and structures and how it affects the health and well-being of building occupants. Whether we are in an office, factory, hospital, supermarket or restaurant, we expect the air we’re breathing to be fresh and clean, keeping us healthy and alert. If the indoor air is maintained at an appropriate temperature, filtered and suitably humidified, we are comfortable. If it is not, however, the signs are soon noticeable.

20 years ago we thought nothing of walking into a pub or restaurant and experiencing the thick aroma of fresh cigarette smoke mixing with the old, stale fumes of the past, with the smell still lingering on our clothes when we got home later. We are now more than a decade on from the introduction of the smoking ban, which made it illegal to smoke in all enclosed work places in England. Many office premises had already voluntarily banned smoking years before amid public fears over passive smoking, but the Wetherspoons pub chain received a mixed response to its decision to make its pubs go smoke free in 2005.

It’s worth remembering that smoking indoors was once commonplace in the UK, not just in pubs. Some seasoned journalists may hark back to the days of working in busy Fleet Street newsrooms clouded in smoke, and anyone who has visited the Churchill War Rooms will have a reasonable idea of how key decisions during the Second World War were made from dark, largely unventilated bunkers beneath the streets of London, during a time when you were more likely to be considered in the minority if you didn’t enjoy a cigarette at your desk.

We can confidently conclude therefore that IAQ was not particularly high on the agenda when it came to workplace design, compared to its growing significance today. Smoke, however, is not the only factor that can affect IAQ. The World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for IAQ, developed under the coordination of WHO/Europe, address three groups of issues that are most relevant for public health: biological indoor air pollutants (dampness and mould); pollutant-specific guidelines (chemical pollution); and pollutants from indoor combustion of fuels.

Effects on health
Poor IAQ can cause symptoms and illnesses ranging from minor irritation of the eyes to nausea. For many people, these symptoms may be little more than inconveniences that make them feel unhappy with their place of work or employer. For others, it can lead to more serious problems.

Asthma sufferers are particularly vulnerable to many of the active factors that cause what is commonly known as Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), when people in a particular building or part of it feel their health is being affected by the building’s environment. These may include inadequate fresh air ventilation, uncontrolled temperature or relative humidity, emissions from office equipment and fluorescent lights, chemical pollutants, painted surfaces and synthetic furnishings. Other well known allergens in the workplace include dust and dust mites from carpets and office furnishings, dusts from wood, grains, leaves and other substances in a factory or shopfloor environment as a result of the manufacturing process, and also allergens carried into the workplace by other employees. Improving the quality of indoor air in the workplace means improved wellbeing and better health not just for asthma sufferers, but for everyone in the building.

Studies on SBS have indicated a relationship between ventilation and air conditioning systems and the prevalence of SBS symptoms. Natural or mechanically ventilated buildings that do not use air-cooling or humidity control tend to have among the lowest recorded occurrences of SBS. This suggests that poorly maintained air conditioning systems may have an influence on SBS, possibly due to microbial growth within humidifiers and cooling units.

Taking responsibility
There is a responsibility on employers to maintain good IAQ by reducing the number of potential sources of pollutants and by eliminating as much pollution as possible close to its source through adequate indoor air treatment. Studies have found that as much as 90 per cent of the day is spent indoors where the levels of some air pollutants are often far higher than outside.

Consider the heat output of office equipment; all electrical equipment is marked with the electrical power it uses, which gives an indication of the amount of heat it will generate while in use. If possible, select equipment that has a ‘sleep’ mode which automatically reduces power consumption during periods of inactivity.

There are simple, practical steps that we can all take to reduce our exposure, such as ensuring buildings are adequately ventilated, and making informed choices about the products we use: make sure that ozone filters are fitted to equipment where appropriate; specify soft furnishing and carpets with low emissions of volatile organic compounds; dedicated extraction equipment should be used to control fumes and emissions. The location of the exhaust vents should ensure that the fumes are not drawn back in to the building through the ventilation system. Consider using printing equipment that can use reduced solvent or solvent free inks; ensure any HVAC plant that recycles air is fitted with suitable filters to remove any pollutants that could have a detrimental effect on IAQ; and when specifying equipment, consider the ease of access for cleaning and maintenance, and also the ‘cleanability’ of the equipment. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and recommendations with regard to maintenance and cleaning.

By committing to cleaner technologies and making behavioural changes we can reduce the threats to health significantly. In our article last year on IAQ we explained the complexity in the regulation for IAQ, with various departments and organisations, including the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG), Public Health England, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), Department for Transport (DfT) and the Health and Safety Executive and the Department for Education all collaborating on the issue, but with no real obvious lead responsibility being taken.

Clean Air Strategy
There was encouraging progress last year with the Clean Air Strategy consultation. The Clean Air Strategy consultation took place between May and August and invited views on actions to improve air quality by reducing pollution from a range of sources. Responses were submitted from 393 organisations and 207 individuals as well as 111 campaign responses and the finalised clean air strategy was published by DEFRA on 14 January 2019, with a foreword by Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Although the Clean Air Strategy is about air pollution as a whole rather than just IAQ, it is evidence that the impact of poor air quality on people’s health is being given the attention it merits, and Section 6: Action to reduce emissions at home, goes into some detail to raise awareness of the causes of indoor air pollution.

This chapter highlights the main forms of indoor air pollution: particulate matter (PM) and Non-Methane Volatile Organic Compounds (NMVOCs). PM is produced by many forms of cooking and home heating, most notably from combustion in open fires and stoves. NMVOCs are emitted by a wide variety of chemicals that are found in carpets, upholstery, paint, cleaning, fragrance, and personal care products.

While we commend DEFRA for focusing on the issue of outdoor air quality, we strongly believe that both indoor and outdoor air quality should be considered as linked issues.

EVIA’s ‘Call to Action’
We have spoken previously of our support for the European Ventilation Industry Association’s (EVIA) hard work to push for the development of an assessment method for determining the impact ventilation systems have on IAQ. EVIA has recently produced an infographic and an eight-page EU manifesto titled ‘Good Indoor Air Quality Is A Basic Human Right’. The manifesto has been produced ahead of the EU elections being held in May with aim being to raise the issue of IAQ with prospective new MEPs and Commission officers.

FETA correspondence with government
In December 2018 FETA wrote to various government departments, including MHCLG, BEIS, DEFRA and PHE to bring attention to an internal group created by FETA which aims to determine how we, as industry, can contribute to making real improvements in tackling some of the issues surrounding IAQ.  

This is undoubtedly a complex issue but we are pleased to see that, as part of the forthcoming review of Part F of the Building Regulations (the consultation for which has just been released), the government is planning to review the evidence on indoor pollutants (such as non-methane volatile organic compounds and smoke from domestic burning) and recalculate ventilation rates to reflect any changes in this evidence.

We are also pleased to see the formation of the Office for Environmental Protection, which will, we are told, hold the government to account for meeting air quality standards.

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