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Adam Taylor Jun 3, 2024 4:26:47 PM 6 min read

The election must get people talking about IAQ again


The General Election has been announced at a critical moment for indoor air quality (IAQ), writes BESA’s Indoor Air Quality group chair Adam Taylor.

Building ventilation became the hottest of hot topics in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. This sparked a surge in demand for IAQ specialists and a deluge of technological ‘magic box’ air cleaning solutions – most of which disappeared as quickly as they emerged.

Adam Taylor BESA IAQ Group chair-1As the pandemic fades further into the background, the public debate has moved on and many firms that invested in IAQ solutions and employed people specifically to carry out building ventilation audits are now struggling. Clients are focusing their limited budgets on other urgent areas and ventilation upgrades are once again on the back burner.

Yet, the problem itself has not gone anywhere. In fact, the health implications of poor IAQ are more serious than ever.

The condensation issue is back in the headlines following the BBC’s expose of the black mould epidemic in homes linked to poorly applied cavity wall insulation. And there is another scandal coming: Thousands of mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) have been fitted into heavily insulated and sealed homes. Many were never commissioned, they were simply wired up and connected to flexible ducting that has been crammed into the available space without any allowance for air flow.

Few are being checked or maintained, and many have been switched off by users because of noise issues. In many cases, they are the only source of ventilation for these tightly sealed and heavily insulated homes and the health impacts are already being seen.

These are just two examples of why we are experiencing an IAQ ‘crisis’ – the true extent of which was recently highlighted in a report published by the Royal Society of Chemistry. This called for long-term funding for research into the complexities of IAQ and urged policymakers to consider more options for improving air inside homes and public buildings.

It pegged its research to World Health Organisation (WHO) figures from 2020 that showed more than three million people worldwide died every year “due to illnesses resulting from harmful indoor air in their homes, with the majority of these deaths occurring in low and middle-income countries”.

Cocktail of contaminants
Like BESA, the RSC believes IAQ remains something of a scientific mystery compared with outdoor air pollution which has been studied extensively. The public awareness campaigns are primarily focused on the impact of outdoor pollution from transport and industrial processes with the cocktail of contaminants the create harmful indoor conditions only superficially mentioned.

(We are seeking to redress the balance a little at BESA’s Clean Air Day event on June 20th at the Wave in Bristol – for more details email:

The RSC report highlighted the lack of regulation aimed at limiting indoor air pollutants such as VOCs which are linked to respiratory problems and nervous system damage.  One helpful suggestion was the need for a nationwide “inventory of indoor emissions” to support research and increased monitoring of pollution levels in buildings. It also called for better mechanisms “to enable collaboration between disciplines…and a need for scientists to engage with policymakers, stakeholders and the wider public”.

The building engineering community must be at the heart of that collaboration as we can deliver the solutions given the right regulatory framework and funding. We can turn the physics and chemistry of the problem into real, practical outcomes.

Also, while IAQ specifically has dropped off the radar and is yet to feature prominently pre-election coverage, social and health care, and the future of the NHS are at the forefront of the pre-election arguments; as is the dreadful state of social homes.

Ventilation has a critical role to play in addressing many of the sources of indoor pollution that exacerbate a range of respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. In fact, it was recently stated by a leading healthcare professional that better building and facilities management could save more lives than the global medical and social care sectors combined.

While doctors and nurses can treat the symptoms of conditions like asthma and poor lung function, their patients then return to their homes and workplaces where the conditions that cause or worsen the problems still exist – and the cycle continues.

The election debate around healthcare has so far been restricted to who is going to spend the most money – but we need more imaginative solutions and a stronger focus on protection and prevention that could shorten waiting lists, reduce prescription costs, and improve the wellbeing outcomes for thousands of people.

People spend, on average, 90% of their time indoors so IAQ is a massive driver of infection and disease. Let’s get everyone talking about ventilation again before July 4th.

As part of the election debate, BESA will be reinforcing the messages contained in Awaab’s Law which seeks to tackle mould and damp in homes by putting more pressure on landlords to address problems when they arise.

This was the context for our Guide to Mould and Damp published last year.

That guide was just one of a series produced by BESA’s Indoor Air Quality group, and the group exists to promote the importance of building engineering solutions in addressing the huge problem of poorly ventilation buildings.

There are no silver bullets to this problem – and no ‘magic box’ air cleaning solutions.

The IAQ Group does not exist to promote individual products, but to deliver building engineering services solutions that can be applied throughout entire buildings. Products do play a big part in this, of course, but they must be part of a joined-up, whole building solution based around fully designed, professionally installed and commissioned systems that are then maintained throughout their lifetime and supported by ongoing measuring and monitoring of airborne contaminants.

Just as net zero cannot be delivered by single technologies, such as heat pumps, so air quality in buildings requires integrated solutions.

We believe the election can create a platform for further debate and promotion of the engineered solutions, training, and quality standards the country needs. This will help building services contractors have the often-difficult conversation with their clients about the need for a properly designed, installed, and commissioned ventilation system – and for long-term measuring, monitoring and maintenance.

Ductwork needs to be kept clear of dust and other contaminants, filters cleaned or replaced when needed, fans and controls adjusted, and the level and type of pollutants measured and monitored so building managers know what they are dealing with.

Let’s get that conversation going again.

So, what are the main parties saying?

Political parties had made various IAQ pledges, which we expect to be reflected in their manifestos:

The Conservatives continue to back their Environmental Improvement Plan, which includes measures to improve air quality by reducing pollutants and promoting better ventilation. This is aligned with its broader Clean Air Strategy which targets both outdoor and indoor air pollutants but that sets a disappointingly low benchmark.

They rejected widespread calls for a new Clean Air Act claiming they already had the powers needed to enforce better IAQ standards through existing environmental legislation.

Labour sees the problem through the housing lens and has raised its concerns about mould and damp, which it aims to address through stricter regulations and improved enforcement – hopefully of Awaab’s Law.

They propose investing in the retrofitting of homes to improve insulation and ventilation to reduce mould growth, something that BESA would, of course, endorse.

The Liberal Democrats are calling for stronger building standards and regulations and want all homes to meet “rigorous air quality standards”. They are proposing incentives for homeowners to upgrade ventilation systems alongside a public awareness campaign to educate the public about the health risks linked to IAQ​.

If, at the very least, this helps to get people talking about the IAQ problem again that will be a result in itself!