Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Clear Vision - Simon Birkett of Clean Air London

As more is uncovered about the devastating health effects of poor air quality, pollution prevention is moving up the environmental priority list and one man is on a mission to take it to the top, as Ian Vallely discovers

Hardly a day goes by without a new scare story about poor air quality hitting the headlines. Clearly, the subject is starting to seep into the public consciousness. This is good news for HVAC professionals on at least two counts:.

First, it will increase the clamour for action to tackle the insidious, health-threatening problem of pollution, which will, in turn, lead to a better, more productive environment. Secondly, it has the potential to result in an expansion of work for building services specialists, as outside pressure mounts to mitigate the effects of pollution.

Simon Birkett is founder and director of pressure group Clean Air in London, whose mission is to achieve full compliance with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for air quality throughout London and elsewhere. It works closely with other campaign groups, and a wider network of supporters and volunteers, to identify and build understanding of important pollution issues and encourage decisive action on them.

For Mr Birkett, this is an already pressing task that is increasing further in urgency: “People ask are we nearing a tipping point on air quality? I say forget about tipping points, they happened in 2012. If there is one message I would have for the HVAC industry, it would be that there is a tidal wave coming up the beach in terms of people’s understanding and concern about air pollution… If people don’t address this positively, and get ahead of the issue, I think they’re going to face some very, very big liabilities.”

Mr Birkett firmly believes that the HVAC industry should play its part in waking up the construction sector to the potential tsunami of public concern: “We should take the opportunity to re-engineer our cities in a way that will make them better places in which to live,” he says, “The HVAC industry has a lot of great expertise, and it would be really good if they would share that added value with people running buildings.”

If the UK complies fully with relevant laws, it can show the world how to successfully tackle air quality, climate change and sustainability issues. However, Mr Birkett is exasperated with the slow progress in London and is typically forthright about where the blame lies: “Boris Johnson was a shocking London mayor. He was in the free market anarchy type category and a self-publicist…”

“With Boris, it wasn’t that he didn’t do things. It was that he actually took backward steps. So, for example, he scrapped the Western extension of the congestion charge, he delayed Phase 3 of the Low Emission Zone (LEZ) by 15 months and he gave 100% congestion charge discount to Euro 5 diesels [it has been estimated that a typical new diesel car on the road emits 10 times more nitrogen oxides than a petrol car].”

But Mr Birkett’s estimation of Sadiq Khan – who took over as London mayor last year – is far more generous: “He’s got off to a very good start; the challenge for him is urgency – time is running out on a lot of climate and health issues.

“We need the mayor to say he’ll do his damnedest to eliminate all possible fuel-burning across the whole of London by 2030. That’s the sort of vision we need… He does seem to listen and work hard, and he has done a really good job highlighting the realities of the air pollution crisis.”

These realities include potentially devastating health effects which are becoming increasingly understood, says Mr Birkett: “Sixty-five years ago was the Great Smog [which covered London in December 1952 and was held to be directly responsible for the death of 4,000 people, with a further 100,000 made ill by its effects]. At that time, we were worried about respiratory effects from short-term exposure to visible air pollution from coal and wood burning. It was only fairly recently that we started to worry about cardiovascular effects – including heart attacks and strokes – caused by long-term exposure to invisible particles. I would predict that in 10 years’ time we will be very worried about a whole new range of health effects that we are just starting to see signals of - like cognitive effects in children, genetic effects, dementia and other degenerative diseases.”

The health effects, he underlines, don’t just last a lifetime but can cause real problems down the generations too: “The message is that pollution has fallen outside cities, it’s pretty static or fallen very slightly inside cities and large towns, but the known and understood health effects have rocketed much faster than air pollution has fallen.”

And, he points out, it’s difficult to escape the effects of poor air quality – protection in an unfiltered and unprotected building is limited, even if you remain indoors, since half to three quarters of the outdoor pollution will seep indoors, according to some estimates.

Besides, sources of emissions are common within buildings too, for example, from furniture, carpets or paint; volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and formaldehyde.

So what can be done? Mr Birkett believes the single most important action that the HVAC industry can take is to commit to regular monitoring of the key air pollutants such as carbon dioxide. “Ultimately, the building owner ought to be responsible for what’s happening in their building,” he says, “But in the HVAC sector, you might reasonably invest in testing and evidence gathering, because it will make the case for improvements in heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems - testing and measuring is important to gain evidence to make the case for change.”

In practice, this means much more regular monitoring than the industry – and building owners - have been used to: “There should be regular or real time measuring of CO2, perhaps hourly,” he contends, “For the other pollutants, including formaldehyde, VOCs, particulates, and probably nitrogen oxide and dioxide, I think it would probably be enough to test them monthly or quarterly. With carbon monoxide, perhaps you could rely on an alarm.”

And he thinks we should then publicise these figures: “They ought to be up on the notice board so the people working in a building know what the position is…This raises the profile of the issue and tells people whether they are in a good or an awful building.”

But it is also critical to put in place ambitious standards, he says. For example, as of January 2017, the new test standard ISO 16890 for filter testing and assessment has replaced the previous standard EN 779. Filter efficiencies are determined with regard to the particulate classes which are also used as evaluation parameters by the WHO and environmental authorities.

Another important standard is BS EN 13779, which specifies the required filter performance in a system to achieve good indoor air quality taking into consideration the outdoor air.

For Mr Birkett, the third imperative is the need for effective communication to raise public awareness of the issues surrounding air quality: “That could be a role for the HVAC trade associations. The thing about air conditioning, ventilation and filtration is that they are three different things and the building may have one, two or three or none of them.

“You probably need all three and you can achieve them whether there is mechanical ventilation or not. So, for example, you could open windows and you can use standalone air filters and air conditioning. What is important is to protect people and buildings, so if your client has no mechanical ventilation in place, they should be looking at standalone systems.”


The rise of the megacities

A clear trend resulting from a fast-changing global situation, including Brexit and the Trump presidency, is emerging, according to Simon Birkett. This, he says, involves a shift from country to city pressure for better air quality: “I think with the breakdown of the big regional blocks across America and Europe, what we will inevitably see is the growth of the influence of megacities.”

Megacities are cities with a population of more than 10 million. In 2015, there were 36 megacities, the largest of which were the metropolitan areas of Tokyo and Shanghai, with populations of 38.8 million and 35.5 million respectively.

“With increasing urbanisation, megacities are the places where this [pollution eradication] game will be won or lost,” Mr Birkett says, “I think this is the phase we are going into for the next 10, and maybe 20, years because cities are closer to the people and tend to be much more accountable.”

He also sees the breakdown of regional co-operation in North America and Europe: “By regions I’m talking about multi-country [supranational] blocks. We are seeing a shift towards nationalists of one sort or another in the United States and, arguably, the same here; free-market anarchists who want no rules or regulations on anything and don’t really care if it kills someone.”

However, Mr Birkett also has a positive message: “The cities can see this happening and are doing something about it by setting a much more positive agenda, taking control to save us all.”

He points to examples such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group ( – a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change. C40 supports cities to collaborate effectively, share knowledge and drive action on climate change.

Another example is the Compact of Mayors (, the world’s largest coalition of city leaders addressing climate change, which establishes a common platform to capture the impact of cities’ collective actions through standardised measurement of emissions and climate risk.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.