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Environment Bill should give councils air quality powers

Local councils should be given the legal authority to enforce higher standards of air quality in homes, schools and public buildings, according to the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).

The Association believes the government should use its Environment Bill, which will have its second reading in the House of Commons tomorrow, to beef up local rules on indoor air quality (IAQ) in light of alarming new evidence about the impact of pollution on child health.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) and the Royal College of Physicians carried out a wide-ranging survey of buildings that revealed shocking rates of asthma and other allergic conditions including conjunctivitis, dermatitis and eczema were directly linked to poor IAQ.

RCPCH paediatric respiratory consultant, Jonathan Grigg, said: “Too many of our homes and schools are damp and poorly ventilated – this is adversely affecting the health of children.”

He added that it was welcome that the country was finally paying attention to the quality of outdoor air, but that the indoor issue was not receiving the attention it needed.

The research showed that British children spend on average just 68 minutes a day outside and are, therefore, subject to a range of indoor pollutants for almost 23 out of every 24 hours.

The report also pointed out that IAQ tends to be worse in low-quality housing and older buildings due to inadequate or poorly maintained ventilation – and that indoor air can be many times more polluted than what is outside due to a cocktail of contaminants including smoke, damp, traffic fumes, chemical aerosols and particulates from wood burning.

The Royal College of Physicians special advisor, Stephen Holgate, commented: “More than three million families live in poor quality housing in the UK. Most will not have enough money to make improvements and have no option but to make do with damp, under-ventilated environments.

“We need to offer support at local authority level – likewise with schools. If we ask our children to spend their childhood days in unhealthy spaces, then we’re storing up problems for future health.”

BESA’s Health and Well-being in Buildings group has backed the physicians’ call for greater power to be given to local authorities to enforce minimum standards of IAQ. It is also calling for changes to planning rules to ensure air quality tests are part of the approval process and again when a building is signed off.

Local authorities could also offer free indoor air testing for residents backed up by a national fund to support urgent improvements for low income families with all buildings monitored for airborne particulates (PM2.5 and below); CO2 levels; ozone; NOx; and VOCs.

BESA also recommends that local authorities adopt and enforce World Health Organisation (WHO) standards for air quality, which are much stricter than EU regulations. It also suggests that air quality could also be assessed as part of the OFSTED inspection regime for schools; particularly in high risk urban areas and close to busy roads.

Schools already have ‘duty of care’ responsibilities to safeguard children – so they could also receive a grading for how well they manage the threat from air pollution, the Association said.

“Would you move your family into the catchment area of a school with a good academic record, but unhealthy air?” asked Nathan Wood, chair of the BESA Health and Well-being in Buildings Group. “Also, developers should not be throwing up thousands of new homes in poor air quality areas without ensuring they provide occupants with adequate protection i.e. high-quality ventilation and filtration that turns those homes into safe havens from pollution.

“By the same token, if you can address the IAQ issue you can build more homes even while long-term efforts to clean up the outside air are going on – so helping local authorities achieve their house-building targets.
“The Environment Bill as it stands is silent on IAQ. For our children’s sake, I hope MPs use the second reading debate tomorrow to ask the government why and push for amendments that include the sorts of strong measures that BESA has outlined.”

25 February 2020

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