04 June 2020

The health problems associated with poor indoor air quality (IAQ) have been reported extensively. Sadly, stories of families living in social housing units where damp and mould are rife, still make the headlines.

A major new report, released by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) and the Royal College of Physicians, calls for government and local authorities to do much more to improve IAQ in social housing.

The report, based on a systematic review of 221 studies and interviews with children, young people and families, concluded a strong link between IAQ and children’s respiratory health.

With children spending more and more of their time indoors the health impact of air quality in the home must be taken seriously.

This 2-part blog explores the RCPCH report in more detail to decipher what it means for future policy decisions around IAQ. Let’s start by highlighting the main takeaways from the report, explore common pollutants found in the home and consider the factors that affect IAQ.

The Report: An overview

The study by RCPCH and the Royal College of Physicians has given more credence to the notion that poor indoor air quality is a preventable cause of ill health and it emphasises the importance of healthy air.

The report recommends that government and local authorities should:

· Develop a national strategy, which should include setting indoor air quality standards
· Set up a national body to lead on IAQ
· Introduce emissions labelling of household products and building materials
· Give clear information about IAQ to the public, local authorities, building and child health professions
· Establish a process for those in rented and social housing to report IAQ problems
· Provide assistance for necessary improvements

What pollutants can be found in the home?

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are released from burning fuel, such as coal, wood or gas, as well as from many consumer products, such as paints, adhesives, furnishings, building materials, air fresheners and cleaners/disinfectants.
Smoking and vaping are amongst the most obvious pollutants affecting air quality in homes. Damp also negatively impacts IAQ.

A study by Greenwood found that, for example, frying and grilling foods raises pollution levels in the kitchen to over three times that are found in a typical London road.

Most people are completely unaware that everyday activities in the home, such as cooking, cleaning and vacuuming can contribute considerably to toxic load.

Factors that influence IAQ:

Major risks and contributory factors to poor IAQ can be grouped into four main areas. These are:

1. A lack of knowledge and understanding about IAQ by building occupants
2. The ever increasing focus on energy efficiency and airtightness of homes without equal attention to ventilation
3. The availability, quality and age of our social housing stock
4. Lack of guidance from government and no proper system for reporting IAQ problems

Let’s explore these individual factors further.

1. A lack of knowledge and understanding
One of the key takeaways from the RCPCH research was that children, young people, parents and carers don’t really understand indoor air pollution. They don’t know where to get information about it and they are confused about what they can do.

There were, for example, opposing views about opening windows to let fresh air in or keeping them closed to keep pollution out. Some survey respondents felt that cleaning more would make indoor air cleaner, but they were unaware of the detrimental impact of many cleaning products.

Earlier this year, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) published their recommendations for improving indoor air quality, advising local authorities to be much more pro-active in offering guidance to tenants on IAQ.

2. Airtightness and poor ventilation
Incentivised energy efficiency improvements have driven the move towards homes becoming increasingly airtight. But airtightness hasn’t been matched by equal improvements in ventilation, which is key for diluting or removing pollutants. Homes have become more toxic as a result.

In July 2019, PAS2035, the authoritative document in the retrofit standards framework, not only sought to ensure continuing energy efficiency standards in building improvement projects, but also the critical role ventilation must play in retrofits. Any proposed retrofit must now assess ventilation.

However, such retrofits aren’t high on the social housing agenda and there is little evidence that PAS2035 is having a positive impact on IAQ in the UK’s social housing stock. This is largely down to a lack of funding. Our article on the impact of PAS2035 on the social housing market explains more.

3. Older properties
Few can argue with the fact we are not building enough new homes, particularly when it comes to affordable units and social housing. A significant proportion of local authority housing is old. Unfortunately, older buildings often contain materials that are highly polluting. They are also more likely to contain older furnishings and appliances.

4. Lack of government and local authority guidance
While government and relevant agencies are responsible for the development of standards in the built environment, it is often down to other bodies and professionals to ensure they are applied. This requires rigorous inspection and testing.

The RCPCH report refers to the Grenfell Tower fire as a tragic example of problems in the application of building and refurbishment standards. Only now are fire regulations being given the attention they deserve.

It took a high profile and shocking disaster for this to come to the fore. There has been no headline-grabbing incident to highlight the issue of how poor IAQ affects health. It is a silent killer.

Round-up and what to expect in part 2

It is clear there are many factors affecting IAQ in social housing, from the fabric of the building and inadequate ventilation to a lack of knowledge about everyday products and activities in the home that can contribute to air quality.

The drive for energy-efficiency has rendered many homes toxic with ventilation not given equal attention. There has been a distinct lack of guidance from central and local government to tenants, and building and health professionals on the importance of IAQ and the potential for it to impact health.

In the second part of this blog, Greenwood explores further the impacts of IAQ on health and the ventilation solutions that could help to mitigate health risks.