The quality of the air we breathe; part 1.


Emily Sullivan, Air Quality Consultant

Are we doing enough?

It is an exciting time to be involved in the air quality field. Attitudes are changing, and public perception and awareness of air quality has grown massively in recent years. Air pollution is now recognised as a major health problem. In the UK alone, exposure to outdoor air pollution is estimated to be linked to around 40,000 deaths a year, with the associated financial cost reaching an annual figure of £20 billion.

Although the UK has benefited from improvements in air quality over recent decades through the introduction of cleaner technology, changing behaviours and policy interventions (such as Clean Air or Low Emission Zones), there are still areas across the UK that consistently exceed the limits.

The onset of Covid-19 also highlighted the importance of good ventilation, and the quality of the air we breathe, in our indoor environments. Additionally, there is also a growing call on the government to reform the existing air quality legislation and adopt tougher and more stringent air pollution limits in order to protect our health.

With these issues in mind, and the massive benefits that could be realised from improvements in air quality, it raises the question: are we doing enough?

Right here, right now: the present situation.

As an industry, the assessments carried out by air quality professionals have focused on predicting and assessing concentrations of pollutants in outdoor environments. The current emphasis is very much focused on the pollutants: nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (both PM2.5 and PM10). Predictions are made, or measurements taken, to determine compliance or non-compliance with the UK air quality objectives at a given location. Where non-compliance is anticipated, mitigation solutions are provided in order to offset any emissions released from the development or to ensure the legal limits are achieved at the building’s air intakes.

While the UK air quality objectives play an important role in protecting human health against outdoor air pollutants, it is widely recognised that there are no safe levels of exposure to air pollution – harm to health can still occur at concentrations below the objective values.

Additionally, some members of society are more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution than others, with, for example, children and the elderly disproportionately affected by poor air quality, as well as those members of society with pre-existing respiratory or heart conditions.

There is also a disparity in the types of building use covered by the objectives. For example, the annual mean objectives do not apply at facades of offices or other places of work. As a consequence, by following the professional guidance, the air quality profession is not always required to assess the air quality climate at all locations in the same context.

To truly take air quality into account in the design process, moving forward, there are several key areas that should be progressed:

– Moving beyond compliance – there are benefits of moving beyond compliance and pushing for schemes to achieve a higher standard of air quality for the end user, regardless of their location or use.

– Increasing air quality monitoring – the increased use of air quality monitoring on schemes can provide a greater understanding of indoor air pollution and allow the occupants to react accordingly.

– Assessing indoor air quality consistently – it is important to ensure indoor air quality is not only considered but done so in a consistent manner across all building uses.

– Re-evaluating the air quality situation – there are benefits of regularly re-assessing air quality and its potential impact on building occupants throughout a building’s lifecycle, and not just at the planning stage, so as to ensure mitigation measures continue to be fit for purpose.