Last reviewed 10 August 2015

Indoor air quality is a vital component of health and wellbeing but one that is often overlooked in the drive to curb emissions, explains Dave Howell.

For years, businesses have been asked to contribute to the Government’s emission reduction targets. However, the focus on overall emission reductions and the consequent improvement in outdoor air quality has to a large degree not been extended to indoor air quality.

Indoor Air Quality UK (IAQUK), an independent organisation aiming to push indoor air quality up organisations’ agendas, describes indoor air quality as “the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of air in the indoor environment”. Europeans spend 90% of their time indoors, so improving the air quality within buildings can have a massive positive impact on employee wellbeing.

According to IAQUK, vaporised chemicals (VOCs) can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, migraines, nausea and dizziness. VOCs are emitted from a number of sources including processes, furnishings, substances and even people. Research has shown that VOC levels are up to three times higher in buildings built after 1982 than in pre-1940 buildings, as painting, decorating and even new furniture can double the amount of compounds in our indoor environment.

The risks from VOCs such as ozone, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide should be a focus for all premises managers. Air quality should be monitored and practical steps taken to improve poor indoor air quality. These could include:

  • reducing the levels of dust and debris in the atmosphere

  • assessing decorative and cleaning materials for their chemical composition, choosing water-based and non-aerosol substances

  • increasing the flow of fresh air

  • providing plants to increase humidity

  • ensuring heating and air conditioning installations are carefully maintained and monitored.

There are several different documents offering guidance on safe levels of VOCs. The World Health Organization published WHO Guidelines for Indoor Air Quality: Selected Pollutants in 2010, the Building Regulations set criteria for building ventilation and several air pollutants and, for example, the Department for Education has a page devoted to relevant indoor air quality documents in schools on its website.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recently launched a new independent committee that will advise on workplace health. The Workplace Health Expert Committee (WHEC) includes nine members and envisages “collaborative working with stakeholders and partners whilst helping to identify issues of potential concern”.

Professor Andrew Curran, Deputy CEO of the Health & Safety Laboratory (HSL), said: “Our statistics show that around 13,000 people die each year from occupational lung disease and cancer as a consequence of past workplace exposures, primarily to chemicals and dusts. In addition, an estimated 1.2 million people who worked in 2013/14 were suffering from an illness they believed was caused or made worse by work, of which 535,000 were new cases, which started in the year.”

Roger Martin, Technical Director for the company SafeAirQuality, says: “Risk assessment procedures apply perfectly in this area of responsibility: identify a risk; quantify the relevant parameters; implement control measures to reduce the risk; quantify and document any improvement; develop a plan for continued consideration.”

The interview

Croner talked to Peter Walsh, principal air quality scientist at WSP, Parsons Brinckerhoff.

What, in your view, is the current state of indoor air quality in the UK?

“Indoor air quality within the non-domestic setting has generally improved in recent years, particularly with the cessation of smoking in public building and workplaces, the use of low solvent paints and thinners. However within homes our indoor air quality to an extent has degraded with the rise in popularity of the domestic wood burner. Wood smoke has been linked with respiratory health problems, and in response to this a reduction in the use of domestic wood burners in Hobart, Tasmania led to a fall in male cardiovascular disease by 18%, respiratory disease by 23% (Evaluation of interventions to reduce biomass smoke air pollution on mortality in Launceston, Australia: retrospective analysis of daily mortality, 1994–2007, Johnston, F et al., BMJ, 2013).”

Has legislation been able to improve the indoor air quality that most employees experience?

“In terms of the release of pollutants and work-related particulate matter, current legislation does protect the health of employees. Though since the Control of Substances Harmful to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) there have been few improvements on occupational health standards, with pollutant thresholds often several orders of magnitude higher than their equivalent ambient air standards. With exception to the approach taken in regulating exposure to asbestos, there is insignificant enforcement of occupational health standards by the regulatory bodies in the UK.”

How can a premises manager be more proactive with improving the air quality in his or her buildings?

“Managers could begin to improve the indoor air quality of their buildings by designing ventilation systems that both prevent build-up of pollutants within the building, while eliminating any external polluted air from ingressing into the building.”

Is there a clear link between the drive for a low carbon economy and indoor air quality?

“The relationship is complicated, as poor ambient air quality is largely linked to vehicle emissions, which are set to reduce with the introduction of hybrid and electric vehicles. So the low carbon economy will eventually bring about improved ambient air quality. However improvements in the thermal insulation of new buildings often results in a greater control of the building ventilation. Sealing a building from the external environment, unless it has a good HVAC system, can be detrimental to indoor air quality, with particulate matter and carbon dioxide building up as a consequence of its occupation.”

Has technology been able to deliver any improvements in air quality in the built environment?

“Recent incorporation of pollutant selective filtration systems, such as carbon filters dosed with denitrifying properties, has reduced the impacts of polluted air intruding into buildings. In particular this technology has permitted residential developments in areas were air quality is currently poor, such as in city centres. Opening up the centre of cities to residential development once again avoids green field developments and allows residents to reduce their commuting by living close to where they work.

“Outside of building ventilation requirements as set out in Part F of the Building Regulations, there are no specific indoor air quality standards for non-occupational environments within the UK. Therefore there is no basis upon which to regulate poorly ventilated residential properties or assess ingress of external polluted air into residential buildings. Tackling this absence in indoor air quality standards would greatly assist in improving the health of families suffering from poor indoor air quality, typically those living within rental properties.

“Without comprehensive legislation organisations need to develop their own response to air quality and air system maintenance in their buildings. It is increasingly apparent, however, that addressing indoor air quality pays dividends in terms of healthy and productive employees.”