Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Smog police detect indoor air problem

David Frise, BESA Head of Sustainability

Air pollution in many UK cities is, effectively, out of control.

This week a ‘Smogmobile’ was seen on the streets of London measuring alarmingly high levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Laser technology developed by NASA is now being used to gauge just how serious and widespread the problem is and why the capital breached its European NO2 limits for the entire year in the first week of January.

The rest of the country is not doing much better with Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Cardiff and Edinburgh all over their pollution limits last year. The country as a whole has been in breach of EU clean air laws for over five years and we now face hundreds of millions of pounds in fines from the European Supreme Court.

The World Health Organisation estimates there are 360,000 premature deaths in the EU as a result of worsening air pollution. In central London the concentration of diesel and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is about three times the level recommended by the WHO and the Harvard Six Cities survey indicates that central London suffers a 20% increase in mortality rates mainly as a result of traffic particle air pollution.

Air pollution increases the severity of asthma attacks, instances of heart failure and certain cancers. It reduces lung capacity so upsets the balance of nutrients and oxygen in the blood. A report commissioned by mayor Boris Johnson revealed that nearly 9,500 Londoners die prematurely each year from air pollution – the total for the UK is estimated at 60,000, but what can he do with that information? What options does he – or more likely his successor – have?

Imposing new limits on transport is the most obvious tactic and an ‘ultra-low’ emissions zone is due to come into being but not until 2020. Traffic is responsible for 42% of carbon monoxide, 46% of nitrogen oxides and 26% of particulate matter pollution

Clearly a lot of harm was done by the promotion of diesel vehicles in a bid to cut CO2 emissions, but radical proposals to reduce the number of car journeys allowed into London or a complete ban on diesel vehicles are not great vote winners – and are largely impractical for a busy commercial centre like London.

Also, any attempts at mitigation will take years to put things right and, in the meantime; we are building up a damaging health legacy for future generations (the impacts are most damaging to children). So is there anything we can do that is quicker, more practical and less expensive than banning vehicles from our capital city?

The Smogmobile detected that levels of NO2 were even higher INSIDE the car than outside – leading experts to suggest cycling and walking is actually safer than sitting inside a vehicle in a heavily polluted street.

So, while most of the focus seems to be on problems with OUTSIDE air – there needs to be an urgent shift to measuring and tackling INSIDE air quality (IAQ). And our job as building engineering services companies is to turn our buildings into safe havens that protect occupants from the worst effects of this growing health crisis.

The government has lost control of outdoor pollution, but with proper ventilation service and maintenance strategies we can take control of the IAQ situation. And, as we spend more than 90% of our lives indoors, you could say that will prove more effective than any amount of smogmobiles and lasers.

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