Public funding is urgently needed to ensure schools, hospitals and thousands of homes can benefit from improved awareness of the role played by mechanical ventilation systems in reducing the risk of airborne disease, according to the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).
During a webinar marking national Clean Air Day, a range of experts urged the Government to listen to the ventilation industry and use its expertise to improve the worsening air quality inside buildings that was brought into sharp focus during the pandemic.
They said poor air quality was costing the NHS £20bn a year and was responsible for more than 40,000 deaths. It also disproportionately affects the most socially disadvantaged.
The BESA webinar also called for the creation of ventilation apprenticeships to address a worrying lack of competence that had already resulted in thousands of sub-standard installations of mechanical ventilation systems in homes.
The shortage of funding is particularly acute in schools with academy trust chief executive Garry Ratcliffe telling the Clean Air Day event that despite greater awareness of the risk of transmitting airborne infections during the pandemic, mechanical ventilation remained a low priority for most headteachers.
He added that he was “seriously worried that we are doing more harm than good to children by opening windows close to busy roads”.
Ratcliffe, who is chief executive of Kent-based Galaxy Trust, said the Education Secretary should hear what the ventilation industry had to say because current Department for Education (DfE) COVID ventilation guidance was inadequate. “Would it be acceptable advice to tell people in a workplace to open their windows and wear warmer clothes?” he asked.
He said that his three schools had already spent over £325,000 on COVID mitigation measures but had only been able to reclaim £57,000 from the Government. Each has an annual capital budget of just £7,000, which is primarily to ensure buildings remain safe and to fix leaking roofs and heating.
“If we wanted to free up money to spend on a new ventilation system, we would have to make cuts elsewhere. However, we are judged on the quality of the education we provide…not on the quality of the air.”
He added there could also be a reluctance in some schools to measure indoor air quality (IAQ) “because once you detect something you have to fix it and you probably haven’t got the money”.
The BESA webinar heard that some schools had been offered free CO2 monitors, but had declined them because there was nothing in the DfE guidance about measuring and monitoring air quality.
“You have to see this in the context of the thousand other priorities headteachers face…measuring air quality comes a long way down the list,” said Ratcliffe.
Air quality monitoring specialist Douglas Booker told the webinar that indoor air pollution can often be 3.5 times worse than what is outside the building.
“Government advice about bringing in ‘fresh’ air ignores the fact that outdoor air is often far from fresh,” said Booker, who is chief executive of National Air Quality Testing Services (NAQTS). “COVID is the catalyst that will change things for people who have been working in this field for years because ventilation has never been more visible.”
He welcomed the news that the British Standards Institute (BSI) had agreed to fast-track new IAQ measures into its forthcoming British Standard (BS 40101 Building Performance Evaluation) due to be published in November.
This will include work already completed on the draft Publicly Available Specification (PAS) 3003 that was championed by engineering firm EFT Consult and drew on the expertise of BESA’s Health & Wellbeing in Buildings group.
BESA chief executive David Frise said the country owed EFT a “debt of gratitude” for driving and funding “this really important piece of work” and urged the BSI to “be ambitious” in the IAQ targets it included in the Standard.
EFT’s Mark Phillips told the webinar that the PAS focused on affordable and practical solutions for all types of buildings. He added that it was important the government used this work to advise the public and building managers so that improvements were achievable.
“I often wonder where they get their information from,” he said. “Air quality is a massive area. They need to listen to us because we have lots of technical guidance, experience and expertise.”
The panel also said the issue was closely tied to the Government’s net zero agenda. By designing buildings for better IAQ they could address the wider performance problems that made buildings less sustainable.
The short-term goal is to address COVID transmission, but the government should be investing in longer-term targets that can also address the climate emergency, according to clean air specialist Craig Booth.
“You have to build tight and ventilate right. Some buildings will need mechanical ventilation and filtration to be able to keep operating in dirty surroundings,” he said.
The Government should use the delayed Environment Bill to create an IAQ strategy “beyond Covid”, said Nathan Wood, chair of BESA’s Health & Wellbeing in Buildings group.
“It can become the IAQ Bible, and it can make the invisible visible by promoting measurement and monitoring, so people know what they are dealing with,” he told the webinar. “It could also address the lack of expertise at local authority building control level. We are coming across far too many systems that have been signed off but are not fit for purpose.”
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