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Doctors call for national action on IAQ in new report

Royal College of Physicians follows up 2016 air quality report with focus on IAQ, setting out effects of pollutants

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from heating, furnishings, building materials and damp are up to seven times higher indoors than out, according to a new report from the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

The report, which is entitled The Inside Story, sets out the potential effect on health - particularly on the young - and concludes with a call to action on clean air for children: “This report highlights that the cumulative health effects of children’s indoor exposures to all these sources can be wide-ranging, a considerable source of inequality and in many cases, such effects could be reduced with co-ordinated actions by key stakeholders…We know comparatively little about the specific effects of indoor air pollution exposure, yet it is unlikely that the adverse health effects associated with air pollution all result from the relatively small amount of time children are exposed outdoors.”

Health risks in children from poor indoor air quality include respiratory problems, low birth weight, asthma, eczema, dermatitis and reduced cognitive performance, including sleeping problems.

The doctors make a series of recommendations:

Establish national strategy and regulations

This would require establishing of a cross-government committee to co-ordinate working in health, environment, education and homes for indoor air quality. Also recomended is development of a national IAQ strategy, with a ministerial lead.

The committee should also set emissions standards and introduce a labelling system for building materials, furniture and home decorating products, based on the health hazards. VOCs should be restricted in home cleaning and care products.

Standards should be set for air monitoring devices and air cleaning and filtering products, it recommends, so that consumers have confidence in monitoring and protecting themselves.

Advise the public and professionals

Both the national government and local authorities should provide the public with advice and information about the risks from poor IAQ and the methods for improving it.

Increase Local Authority oversight and powers

Local authorities should be able to require improvements where the air quality falls below mimimum standards in schools and homes: “This should be extended beyond damp and mould (where such powers already exist) to include other pollutants.”

At the same time, the Building Regulations should set legally binding performance standards for IAQ including ventilation rates and maximum pollutant concentration levels, together with labelling for materials. The Building Regs should also include air quality tests after building construction and before sign-off. Compliance, the authors say, may require greater ring-fenced resources  for local authorities to enable enforcement. Local authorities should also include IAQ in any Air Quality Plans.

The authors also call for eight specific measures to be included within Building Regulations

Reduce the potential for inequality

Local authorities should introduce IAQ testing for residents and allow the reporting of poor IAQ

Performance-based building design, construction and management

The construction industry should embed IAQ standards in their practices and the HVAC should be designed to account for any outdoor pollution sources, Training should be provided for building designers in IAQ. In addition, building professionals should ensure adequate ventilation is included in planning refurbishment works, while taking PAS2035 energy standards into account.

The authors also call for eight specific measures to be included within Building Regulations or otherwise given regulatory authority. These are:

  • acceptable levels for formaldehyde and PM2.5
  • mandatory labelling of construction products and materials to identify the pollutant content, emission rates, and restrictions on the materials’ use
  • restrictions or improved standards for services and appliances that emit pollutants (for example gas cookers, solid fuel heating systems)
  • improved guidance and regulation for removal of specific pollutants
  • explicit links between different parts of standards that may affect indoor air quality, for example energy and ventilation sections
  • specific standards for indoor air in building modelling and benchmarking tools
  • designers and builders to provide clear information on the operation of ventilation systems and related services (for example heating and cooking appliances).

Protect school children

Schools should use adequate ventilation to prevent the build up of harmful indoor pollutants, while preventing ingress of outdoor pollutants.

Provide high-quality research and evidence

The appropriate research councils should establish ’large-scale research of UK homes and schools on IAQ’, along with further research on the potential adverse health effects for children and research into chemicals used in homes.

Importantly for the HVAC sector, the report also calls for evidence on the emissions and ventilation rates in buildings of differing age and size, to identify the ’most cost-effective interventions and design choices for improving indoor air quality.’ 

The authors say they are awaiting an official list of common construction materials and their emissions to be published shortly by the EU, but they have produced their own list of potentially polluting materials:

  • Insulation, potentially emitting particulate matter, phospates and aldehydes
  • Paints, potentially emitting formaldehyde. If they are old they may emit mercury, while if they are ‘green’ their linseed oil may react with ozone to produce inhalable pollutants
  • Wallpaper, potentially emitting phthalate 
  • Adhesives,  potentially emitting formaldehyde
  • Furnishings,  potentially containing flame retardant phosphates or dust mites
  • Flame retardants,  potentially emitting phosphates
  • Carpets,  potentially emitting dust mites, VOCs or phosphates
  • Flexible floor coverings,  potentially emitting phthalates
  • Composite wooden floors, potentially emitting formaldehyde and VOCs

The authors conclude: “As seen in this report, there is a complex system of factors that determine indoor air quality. The buildings, the locations, the people and their activities – even the weather outside – all play their part in shaping the air we breathe. Instigating change across, and accounting for, such complexity will not be achieved through piecemeal and uncoordinated individual action…this requires new ways of decision-making, well-coordinated legislation and policy, new standards and financial resources, and concerted effort to transform the knowledge and skills of multiple sectors…”

They also note that poor IAQ has a social impact too. “The most socially disadvantaged are more likely to be most exposed to poor indoor air quality, although for some products associated with an affluent lifestyle, the reverse might be true. This creates an unequal and unfair situation where the families with the least means and least choice over their housing potentially face a greater burden from pollution exposure.”

 

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