Measures to tackle increasingly dangerous levels of air pollution inside buildings must be part of the new air quality laws proposed in a landmark coroner’s report, according to the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).
In his Prevention of Future Deaths report, South London coroner Philip Barlow called for new legally enforceable lower air pollution limits in line with World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines to prevent as many as 40,000 excess deaths in the UK every year.
Barlow ruled that air pollution had contributed to the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, and has now followed that up with a direct call to the government to enshrine WHO limits in law.
Ella developed acute asthma and is the first person in the world to have air pollution listed on her death certificate. Barlow said she had been exposed to nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter (PM) pollution well above WHO guidelines – primarily from traffic close to her home and school.
Currently, UK limits on some harmful particulates are twice as high as those recommended by the WHO.
“The evidence at the inquest was that there is no safe level for particulate matter and that the WHO guidelines should be seen as minimum requirements,” said Barlow. “Legally binding targets based on WHO guidelines would reduce the number of deaths from air pollution in the UK.”
He also called for much wider use of air quality monitoring, which is something BESA has been calling for inside as well as outside buildings.
Ella’s mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, urged the government to act swiftly to adopt the recommendations: “Children are dying unnecessarily because the government is not doing enough to combat air pollution. It is crucial that the UK takes more forceful action to reduce pollution to safe levels – first and foremost, by complying with WHO air quality guidelines.”
Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, who is president of the BESA Health & Wellbeing in Buildings group, has also been pressing the government to enshrine specific targets for indoor air quality (IAQ) in its new environment bill, which is due to come into force this autumn.
The group’s chair Nathan Wood said the coroner’s advice was potentially game-changing. “There are no ‘safe’ limits for many of the pollutants we find inside people’s homes and offices, but the WHO guidelines are at least closer to something like a healthy indoor environment.”
He added that Part F of the Building Regulations, currently under review, could be used to beef up the IAQ measures in the bill and set specific targets for individual pollutants.
“Tackling the indoor problem is particularly challenging because the build-up of contaminated air is often much greater due to the confined space and lack of ventilation. Ella’s tragic death was directly linked to spikes in air pollution outside that made its way into her home and triggered her acute asthma attacks,” said Wood.
“The mixture of outdoor pollutants and contaminants generated inside a home, for example, can create truly toxic conditions. It is extremely difficult to address this if a school, home or office only has opening windows (and other natural ventilation measures) to rely on.”
Wood believes part of the government’s response to the coroner’s report should be support for more ‘engineered solutions’ including the wider use of mechanical ventilation systems with quality filtration and properly tested air-cleaning devices to remove harmful particulate matter from indoor spaces in line with the WHO advice.
He is also concerned that the public is receiving mixed messages from the government because of the Covid emergency.
“People are being told to open their windows to let in ‘fresh’ air to reduce the concentration of airborne virus particles, but the coroner has shown just how damaging outside air can be if you happen to live close to a main road or other highly polluted environment.
“The title of the coroner’s report is very important and should give us all pause for thought,” added Wood. “This is about preventing deaths. We have a moral obligation to use all our skills and the engineering tools at our disposal to make changes now because people, many of them children, are dying.”