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Lessons in air quality

14 September 2022

Pupils and teachers deserve to have clean air in schools. Here, Mark Bouldin explains why we all need lessons to tackle a looming crisis.

WITH THE new school term just around the corner, the challenge of air pollution has once again reared its head, with parents calling for urgent action to spare kids from the serious risks of air pollution. But this is no new phenomenon! The pandemic exposed a serious lack of ventilation and poor air quality across our schools, leaving teachers with little recourse other than flinging open windows, even in bitter cold winter months, when schools returned after the lockdowns.  

But finally, change could soon be on the horizon. A new clean air law has starting its journey through parliament as a tribute to nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah who died from asthma induced by air pollution. The bill would establish a right to clean air, and set up a commission to oversee government actions and progress – but could more be done?   

It’s long been acknowledged that millions of children go to schools in areas where air pollution is worse than the WHO limit. The stark reality is that millions of children are now learning in unhealthy environments and despite urgent calls to action, air pollution remains a looming public health emergency in need to quickfire solutions. In an era where countless urgent topics – from the cost-of-living crisis to climate change – all vie for our attention it’s time to kickstart an urgent conversation around clean air solutions that safeguard children’s future and ensure a safe and healthy return to school in environments conducive to learning, health and wellbeing.   

Single biggest environmental threat to health 

Air pollution is considered the greatest environmental threat to our healthcausing 7 million premature deaths per year, and the global pandemic brought to light  the threat that dirty air can pose. While life  may have resumed a semblance of normality, it doesn’t divert from the fact that every year, human-made air pollution causes up to 36,000 deaths in the UK.   

Poor air quality causes heart and lung diseases, is linked to low birth weight and children’s lung development and may even contribute to mental health issues.  As pupils pack their bags for the return to the classroom it is crucial for businesses and governments to show demonstrable action to keep occupants happy and, most importantly, healthy. 

The way the clean air problem can be tackled is clear: improving air quality through a number of means. Indoor air quality (IAQ) in particular is often overlooked, as outdoor air quality takes the focus, with one example being the Ultra Low Emission Zone, reducing 13,500 cars daily and cuts toxic air pollution by a third. 

Control, improved ventilation, and clean air technology can all assist in improving outdoor and indoor air quality. Among other changes, existing buildings must improve the quality of air through the installation of new controls. In new buildings, there must be regulations put in place to ensure that the air quality for the occupants is safe, efficient, and healthy. Without clean air technology, particulate matter can invade our indoor spaces and cause health problems. 

Tech to take action  

Air  pollution should be considered as a decisive factor for all of us in choosing an area to live in and a place to work. To start delivering the change at the speed needed, we must look to the technologies that address the problem.  To improve the air that we breathe every day, we need to use operational technology. Technologies exist which can capture 99.7% of airborne pathogens, ensuring the air people breathe is safe.  

But even just ensuring  clean  air  is being filtered in from the outside can be enough. We spend 90% of our time indoors, yet indoor air is sometimes five times more polluted than outdoor air. To achieve this, businesses will need to install ventilation, filtration, and disinfection technology, which must be linked to an occupancy measuring solution and technology to measure air quality. 

Truthfully, regulations around clean air need to be revised and drastically improved. Currently, the HSE Approved Code of Practice states fresh air should not fall below 5 to 8 litres of air per second per occupant, while CIBSE’s guidance suggests that buildings should have a ventilation rate of 10 litres. For the regulations to be effective, though, more needs to change than just the ventilation rate. Simply put, regulations are not strong enough and will put the health of your employees and the productivity of your business at risk. Businesses that truly want to get the best out of their employees and keep them healthy must set their benchmark for clean air.  

It’s great to tick the regulatory box but we shouldn’t be waiting to be pushed to make these changes – there is added value in being more energy efficient and using smart technologies, particularly in the name of safety. One thing is for certain: to avoid falling short, clean air technology is a must. 

Taking the first steps 

While it’s a given that we must put safety first, how is clean air technology successfully implemented? To effectively exceed current clean air regulations, businesses will need to install ventilation, filtration, and disinfection technology, which must be linked to an occupancy measuring solution and technology to measure air quality. 

Occupancy management and measuring  come down to two things. Firstly, it’s about ensuring the maximum occupancy of rooms isn’t exceeded, this can be done effectively by introducing booking systems, which is particularly easy post-Covid due to a hybrid working environment. Secondly, it’s important to use technology which can constantly count how many people are in each room. 

The data collected from the occupancy measuring technology can then be fed to the ventilation, filtration, and disinfection technologies. So long as the maximum occupancy isn’t exceeded, you can then automatically adjust ventilation rates in the room, providing the optimum level of clean air for the number of occupants. This integrated approach ensures the system isn’t working at full throttle all day, helping to reduce costs and improve energy efficiency. 

The positive outcomes 

Investing in clean air technology means investing in occupants’ health. Not only do the occupants benefit, but so do businesses – it’s a win/win! Improved indoor air quality not only holds huge health benefits, but also increases productivity within the workplace. Outside of protecting your building’s occupants from the spread of viruses, such as COVID-19, a constant flow of clean air can increase productivity by 11%. 

Integrated clean air technologies allow employees to focus and thrive in their respective environments, and businesses now have the opportunity to create an environment that’s sustainable, efficient, and healthy. Ultimately, air quality needs to be put firmly on the agenda, not just at the start of a new school year but at all times. 

Mark Bouldin is clean  air  expert  at  Johnson Controls. For more information, visit www.johnsoncontrols.com