The right to breathe clean air

What is a human right?

A human right is something that is inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, etc. Under UK law we all have the ‘right’ to life and personal liberty, not to be tortured or treated inhumanely, and we all have the right to a fair trial.

However, we don’t currently have the right to breathe clean air.

This is despite the alarmingly large body of evidence that links air pollution to a wide range of serious health conditions. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that polluted air causes 8.7 million premature deaths every year – 3.8 million of which can be attributed to poor air quality inside buildings.

This also comes just weeks after Rochdale Coroner’s Court ruled that the death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak was directly linked to his exposure to damp and mould caused by poor ventilation in the flat where he lived.

The clamour from campaigners to have this serious health risk recognised in law is finally having an impact. The House of Lords has just approved the draft Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill, which is also known as ‘Ella’s Law’ after Ella Kissi-Debrah – the first person in the UK to have air pollution stated on her death certificate. It has now moved on to the House of Commons where it is being championed by former Green Party leader Caroline Lucas MP.

If the Bill is voted through and becomes a full Act of Parliament, it will finally enshrine our human right not to be subjected to polluted air – including indoors.

Responsibilities for all building operators

In practice, this would include setting clear legal responsibilities for all building operators to monitor and report on their indoor air quality (IAQ). Indoor clean air targets would also have to be in line with the latest guidance from the WHO including those for ultrafine particles and nitrogen dioxide.

And for the first time, it would give people information about whether an indoor space was safe to enter.

The London Assembly has already voted unanimously to support Ella’s Law and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Minister, Lord Benyon, said acting on pollution was “an absolute necessity”. He added that the government could already use the legal framework created by the renewed Environment Act 2021 to stiffen air quality targets and enforcement.

The UK’s Chief Medical Officer has also made air pollution the main focus of his 2022 annual report in which he specifically called for more action around IAQ.

Professor Chris Whitty wrote that IAQ was becoming “an increasing proportion of the overall problem” as some progress had been made on tackling outdoor pollution, so dealing with problems inside buildings should now be a priority.

He added that building ventilation should be improved in tandem with reduced energy use and heat loss. He also called for more research into tackling indoor air pollution including finding ways to reduce contaminant sources, adding that the necessary technical solutions were already widely available.

“Air pollution has improved and will continue improving provided we are active in tackling it. We can and should go further – and it is technically possible to do so,” said Professor Whitty, who has often reflected on the lessons we learned about ventilation from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Lack of adequate ventilation in indoor spaces significantly increased the risk of infection transmission, but we already knew that good ventilation and air filtration enhance health and well-being (including mental health), improve sleep quality, and boost productivity.

We were already losing 5.3 million working days every year due to respiratory infections before Covid-19 struck, according to the Office for National Statistics, but since the pandemic our understanding of the way ventilation improves a building’s infection resilience has soared as more effort has been focused on the science behind IAQ.

Professor Whitty noted in his report that, although people spend upwards of 80% of their time indoors, far more research has been carried out into outdoor pollution than IAQ – and he called for that to change.

Ella’s mother Rosamund Adoo Kissi-Debrah also said that people would continue to die unless governments and the ventilation industry worked together to improve IAQ.

“The NHS will not be able to reduce its waiting lists until we clean up our air,” she said during an interview to mark the first ever World Ventilation Day that was held on November 8. “It is also much easier to control the indoor air than the outdoor – so tackling IAQ is a great way to give people back power over their own environment and save lives.”

Kissi-Debrah has become a leading clean air campaigner since Ella’s death aged nine in 2013 from a severe asthma attack triggered by air pollution – and she is now a WHO advocate for air quality and child health.

An emotive issue

Who would have believed that building ventilation would become such an emotive issue? It means those of us – companies and individuals – who work on delivering ventilation solutions now face a whole new level of scrutiny, but we also have a fantastic source of motivation.

It is often easy to forget that what we do is important and has a direct impact on people’s health and well-being. We can easily get bogged down in the technicalities and miss the bigger picture – particularly if we are working as part of a supply chain and so feel remote from the eventual building occupier.

Building services in general can feel a bit undervalued because most of our work is out of sight out of mind and we only hear about it when something goes wrong. But in the case of ventilation and filtration (or lack of it), things have been going wrong on a huge scale and now, with all the political and public attention, there is massive momentum for change.

Making a difference is a great reason to get out of bed in the morning and, hopefully, this recognition could also act as a motivator for a new generation of building engineers.

Many of our solutions are relatively easy and cost-effective to implement. In many cases, systems simply need to be better maintained or refurbished; filters need to be changed or upgraded; motors replaced, ductwork cleaned etc.

A lot of that might seem fairly mundane to you and me, but in the wider health context it is vital – and now not so out of sight. Air quality campaigners are making the invisible visible and that means more people will be looking to our industry for the answers. Are we ready to deliver?