14.08.2017 Author: Michelle Sharp

2040 car ban distracts from Government failure to tackle indoor air quality

Oxides of nitrogen (NOx) in exhaust fumes are one of the most harmful forms of air pollution so recent UK measures to eventually ban petrol and diesel cars are welcome, but this will only tackle new cars driving on our roads. The backlash has already begun and, even if plans go ahead undiluted, we may still be 50 years away from the disappearance of the combustion engine.

243,454 new cars were registered in the UK in June and only 6,275 were electric or hybrid – less than three percent, even with incentives such as plug-in grants and first year allowances for business owners choosing zero emissions vehicles. With more than 36 million vehicles on our roads the switch is going to take a long time, not to mention massive investment in infrastructure for charging points but with 40,000 premature deaths linked to poor air quality last year policy makers need to look at what can be done today to protect people’s health.

Announcing the plans, a Government spokesman said “Poor air quality is the biggest environmental risk to public health in the UK and this government is determined to take strong action in the shortest time possible.” It is the latest signal politicians and businesses are waking up to the dangerously high levels of air pollution in the UK. In the last month alone Emmanuel Macron announced a similar policy for France, Volvo promised to only make electric and hybrid cars from 2019 and BMW unveiled designs for an electric Mini Cooper. Yet, amongst all the good news there is one serious omission.  

The renewed Air Quality Plan revealed by Environment Secretary Michael Gove makes no mention of Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). While outside air does impact inside air and reducing petrol and diesel cars will have a positive effect on indoor air quality in urban areas, the two are also affected by a host of separate factors and there is significantly more opportunity to quickly improve indoor air quality if concerted action is taken. We spend more than 80% of our time indoors and NOx is just one of the many pollutants present in workplaces and homes due to location – and the ever increasing redevelopment in urban areas will only increase this.

In new homes, Building Regulations such as Part F: (Means of Ventilation) tackle the dilution of gases/particles to set performance rates, but from that moment all decisions are based on energy performance of products and very little is being done to ensure that installed performance is delivered. In addition, little is being done to to improve air quality in older properties – granted this is more difficult, but now following the energy initiative to seal up older dwellings with cavity wall insulation etc, indoor air quality is more than ever an issue that should be addressed.  The technology already exists to filter NOx and other harmful pollutants to make sure they don’t enter indoor environments and isn’t optional now for new homes in urban areas exceeding the 40/m3 set out in the EU Clean Air for Europe (CAFE) Directive. But what about those already there? 

While the UK Government has been slow to adapt from a regulatory point of view, the building industry is beginning to take action. BEAMA launched its successful My Health My Home initiative in 2015 and The Building and Engineering Services Association (BESA) is championing a drive to improve indoor air quality. Its long term recommendations echo the Government’s plan to eventually ban diesel cars, in addition to building schools away from roads and improving traffic management. However, given the Government’s self-confessed need for urgency, BESA’s five immediate recommendations make for interesting reading:

- Ensure correct ventilation is in place – think about installed performance of the system

- Carry out regular maintenance to air conditioning, ventilation and filtration systems – lack of maintenance results in poor performance and noise to the homeowner

- Tackle condensation – inextricabally linked to heating and ventilation in homes that isn’t effective

- Improve filtration

- Measure and tackle internal pollutants like VOCs and carbon monoxide

The issue of air pollution has long suffered from its invisibility. Now it’s having a moment in the spotlight the building industry has a chance to make sure IAQ is recognised as a significant part of the picture.