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Drink it in

Updated: Aug 3, 2020

A few months ago, my water provider sent letters to residents of our town with a warning that it was going to commence a new type of treatment. We should expect, it said, that our water might have a slightly different smell and appearance for a couple of days – but that the water would be perfectly drinkable.

Beyond a few jokes with neighbours about switching to gin for the duration, the episode passed without incident. We all kept drinking the water, washing in it and cooking with it. We are blithely confident here in the UK that our water provision is heavily legislated for cleanliness and safety.

And it is protected because water is vital for life. You can last longer without food than you can without clean water. Cut off the wet stuff, and your average human can last about four days, though you’d feel pretty awful even after one day without it. But I have to ask, how long can you hold your breath? Because our air is not nearly so safeguarded as our water.

Unfortunately, the UK does not have a great record on clean air. In the past, the UK government has missed deadlines for setting standards on air quality, and often breaches international pollution thresholds in the first few months of each year.

Polluted air is a bit of a cocktail of ingredients. The accepted standard on what constitutes ‘clean’ air is set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). It puts a limit of 10 micrograms per m3 of PM2.5. This is particles of pollution that are smaller than 2.5 micrometers. Sources include wood burning and diesel emissions.

A number of UK towns and cities regularly exceed these WHO safety limits on pollution–Nottingham, Manchester, Liverpool, London and a lot more.

You wouldn’t drink a glass of dirty water on the grounds that it would probably make you very ill. Dirty air is doing the same thing, it just takes longer. Fortunately, there is mounting awareness of the cost of poor air on our health. London’s poor air quality is linked not just to thousands of premature deaths each year, but also to a range of illnesses including asthma, heart disease and dementia. Children growing up in areas with high levels of air pollution may develop stunted lungs with up to 10% less capacity than normal.

The British Heart Foundation has also begun a campaign to raise awareness of the links between air quality and long-term health. The BHF says that in the UK, around 11,000 deaths from heart and circulatory diseases are attributable to air pollution each year. It is not the only organisation making these points. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) has launched reports on pollution and indoor air quality, pointing to both as important factors in our health.

Government is starting to clean up its act, as poor health impacts on NHS costs. The Clean Air Strategy was published in 2019. The ambition is that by implementing policies in the strategy, it can reduce PM2.5 concentrations across the UK so that the number of people living in locations above the WHO guideline level is reduced by 50% by 2025. But many think more can be done. The BHF is pushing for the UK government to adopt WHO guidelines on air quality into UK law.

The focus of the building services sector is, of course, air inside rather than outside. But the air inside offices and other buildings is a mix that includes outdoor air. As the focus on air quality and health continues, we may well be at the start of a trend where good indoor air quality (IAQ) becomes a ‘feature’ that building owners want to offer occupants.

In February 2019, the British Safety Council called for outdoor workers to be protected by law from poor air quality. It’s not such a big leap to consider a time when the impact of IAQ on office workers raises the same issue. After all, we sit at our desks breathing a mix of outdoor air plus emissions from printers, photocopiers, carpets – and our colleagues.

Good ventilation strategies and equipment are already available along with easy-to-apply sensors that could support demand-lead ventilation systems. For building services designers and installers, this is an opportunity to promote better design and delivery of systems that keep our air clean. If we take such care over putting clean water into a building, then it makes sense to treat air with the same care and attention.

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