Why air quality is becoming a global concern

Air quality is a significant issue, and not just in the UK. Air pollution has serious impacts on health wherever it occurs and is now a pressing concern globally. Hywel Davies reports

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognised air pollution as a major public health concern in 2015, and the largest single environmental risk to health. It estimates that three million people worldwide die prematurely each year because of pollution. 

WHO Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) are used worldwide as a reference tool to help decision-makers to set standards and goals for air quality management.  They include recommendations for four classical air pollutants particulate matter (PM), ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2). These guidelines underpin international guidance and are cited in CIBSE guidance such as TM40, on health and wellbeing, as well as underpinning EU air quality requirements.

Since 2006, the evidence of adverse health effects linked to exposure to these pollutants has grown. The WHO AQGs – for both outdoor and indoor air quality – offer guidance and recommendations for clean air to protect human health. With support from the EU, Germany, the Swiss government and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the WHO has started work to update the Global Air Quality Guidelines. It is expected to deliver up-to-date recommendations to improve protection worldwide from the adverse health effects of outdoor air pollution.

Regular readers will already be aware of the ongoing efforts of activist lawyers ClientEarth to hold the UK government to account over its air quality policies. The organisation has now won another court ruling against the current administration’s approach to air quality. Mr Justice Garnham, in the High Court, ruled that its policy on air pollution and plans to address air quality are ‘unlawful’, and ordered changes.

This focus on the quality of the air that we breathe will feed through into the work CIBSE members do, as clients become more aware of the impact of air pollution on the operation of buildings in which we live, work and teach

He said the government’s approach to pollution levels in 45 English local authority areas where air quality is below legal limits was ‘not sufficient’ and ‘seriously flawed’. The judge instructed the government to ensure that these council areas take steps to ‘achieve compliance as soon as possible, by the quickest route possible and by a means that makes the outcome likely’. Only 12 areas are currently likely to meet emissions standards by the end of this year.

Mr Justice Garnham endorsed the government’s approach as ‘sensible, rational and lawful’ in five major cities – including Birmingham – even though air quality is not expected to meet EU limits until 2028. The judge granted ClientEarth the right to return to court without the need to apply for further judicial review if it considers that government action continues to be insufficient.

This is ClientEarth’s third successful action against the UK government. A ruling in April 2015 forced the Conservative-led coalition to prepare a new air quality plan, which was published in December 2015. The activist lawyers then returned to court in 2016, to argue that the new plan would still leave the UK in breach of EU air quality targets – and the government was ordered to do better. ClientEarth labelled the most recent plan a ‘shabby rewrite’ of previous plans, and returned to court to win the most current ruling.

So air pollution has become a pathfinder for environmental activism in the UK courts, as scientific evidence suggests that up to 40,000 people a year die from exposure to pollutants across the country. This focus on the quality of the air that we breathe will inevitably feed through into the work CIBSE members do, as clients and building users become more aware of the impact of air pollution on the operation of the buildings in which we live, work and teach – and in which we are cared for or are treated when ill.

The problem is not confined to the UK. On the day of the High Court ruling, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) published a major report highlighting the impact of air pollution from US power plants. Around 30,000 cases of asthma per year are linked to emissions from generating plants.

These organisations cite research by the American Lung Association that suggests as many as 40% of Americans have been exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution. The consequential health impacts tend to be greatest for the young, elderly, expectant mothers, and those with cardiovascular and respiratory conditions.

Improved air quality has the potential to reduce the incidence of asthma, heart attack, and respiratory illnesses and symptoms, and prevent premature deaths. These health benefits arise from improved ambient air quality that results, directly, from reducing electricity consumption. The ACEEE/PSR report describes the health benefits of greater energy efficiency in homes and businesses. Assuming a national 15% reduction in electricity consumption, it employs the Avoided Emissions and Generation Tool (AVERT) from the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) to identify reductions in fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulphur dioxide (SO2), and where those reductions would occur.

AVERT predictions for more than 3,000 counties were then entered into the EPA’s health-impacts screening and mapping model, to rank states and the 50 largest cities where emissions reductions could have the greatest positive impact on the health of those living nearby. It remains to be seen if this will be taken up at federal level.

In another case of a government being in the dock, a federal judge in California recently ruled that the US EPA must implement new energy efficiency standards for packaged boilers, uninterruptible power supplies and other products. The ruling addressed one lawsuit brought by California, New York and other US states, and another by environmental groups.

The quality of the air we breathe has become a significant issue. As engineers, we must be more aware of the impact of the systems we design, manufacture, install, and operate on air quality in the buildings we service – and more aware of the potential for litigation.

  • Hywel Davies is technical director at CIBSE