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Feature: Why indoor air quality should be the focus for housing policy makers

Baroness Finlay, chair of the Board of Trustees at the CO Research Trust explains why the Covid-19 pandemic should bring health and indoor air quality back into focus for housing policymakers. 

On the 5th of July 2021 the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government (DHCL) published the Building Safety Bill. This draft Bill is the ‘next step in ground-breaking reforms to give residents and homeowners more rights, powers and protections.’ Most importantly, this is about making homes across the country safer.

The CO Research Trust welcomes this renewed focus on safety within the area of housing policy and supports the improved requirements for construction and materials. However, it is essential that careful thought is given to the overall health considerations of the built environment. We now have a critical opportunity to put health at the heart of housing policy – it’s one we cannot afford to miss.

While the dangers of outdoor air pollution have been well documented, the often-overlooked area of our environment is the indoor space in which we live. It’s imperative that we strengthen our understanding of the key risk factors and effects of poor air quality in our homes.

In 2016 the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Royal College of Physicians estimated that indoor air pollution may have caused or contributed to 99,000 deaths annually across Europe.

red throw pillow on brown couch

When it comes to housing policy, the health effects of air quality have to be balanced with the seemingly conflicting priorities of affordability, housing access and environmental sustainability – three critical elements that can appear mutually exclusive.

The CO Research Trust has identified this as The Housing Trilemma. How do we balance safety and health, with affordability and access and while still focusing on environmental sustainability?

The Covid-19 pandemic brought the issue of air quality into sharper focus. The first lockdown in March 2020 saw visible improvements in outdoor air quality around the world. Yet indoor air quality remained largely ignored. The greater risk to human health and well-being was still perceived to be outside of the home environment.

It is well-established that there is a higher incidence of carbon monoxide (CO) exposure and other indoor pollutants during the winter months when people spend more time indoors. The Covid-19 pandemic has meant that people were forced to stay indoors more, even as the weather warmed up.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) one in eight households (12%) in Great Britain has no access to a private or shared garden. This rises to more than one in five households in London (21%).

During the first national lockdown, the Government mandated that people were to stay at home, except for an hour of exercise each day. This would have increased the likely exposure to indoor pollutants for hundreds of thousands of people in the UK alone.

A clear link has been established between outside-air pollution and the effects of Covid-19. It might be reasonable to assume that poor indoor air quality would have the same effect and outcomes for Covid-19 sufferers, although this is yet to be confirmed.

The issue of indoor air quality is now more critical than ever and must be a primary consideration of the new Building Safety Bill. As restrictions are lifted despite the third wave, and people mix during the summer holidays, many vulnerable people continue to shield themselves and stay indoors, fearing virus exposure.

Older properties with older heating systems are associated with lower temperatures, high humidity, erratic air circulation and ventilation – all of which contribute to poor air quality.

The CO Research Trust (CORT) has been supporting research and actively campaigning on this subject. We understand the critical challenge for those developing housing policy, as weighing cost against environmental factors is a delicate balancing act, in which health and safety considerations of indoor air quality get left behind.

Yet the primary function of homes as places where people live, and now also work from, means that policies must always encompass health and well-being. If Covid-19 has done anything, it has re-focused our priorities on our own physical and mental health.

To date, much of the innovation and policymaking in housing has focused on new buildings and expensive technologies that have a low environmental impact.

There are two main issues with this approach. Firstly, as concerns about energy efficiency have grown, buildings have become ‘tighter’. Increased insulation, additional weatherstripping, high tech windows and better construction techniques are designed to seal a house to prevent heat escape. This has obvious benefits from an environmental perspective, as we use less fuel to heat or cool a home.

woman sitting on sofa while holding food for dog

The downside to this approach is that an airtight home can exacerbate indoor air quality problems. While it may be environmentally sound, the result can be a home with poor air quality.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), certain indoor air pollutants can be as much as five times higher than outdoor levels. Poor ventilation contributes to poor indoor air quality. Low ventilation rates and higher carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in indoor air have been associated with adverse health and perceived air quality outcomes (Seppänen et al., 1999).

The second major issue with this housing policy approach is that it does not account for the older homes in which most people live. The UK has the oldest housing stock in Europe. This is largely due to the legacy of dwellings built during the industrial revolution, which still form the backbone of our urban areas today.

The CO Research Trust is committed to helping change this through better regulation and policymaking by providing evidence and data and making the case for new technologies which aim to make people safer and healthier.

In 2016 the CO Research Trust funded a project carried out by University College London, looking at the ‘Determinants of CO Exposure in the English Housing Stock.’

The project made the following recommendations for policy and strategy, as well as proposals to modify behavioural influences:

  • Advice should be targeted towards occupants of small flats (especially those adjacent to major roads) due to their expected increased exposure.
  • That purposed provided ventilation (PPV) is pushed for inclusion in any refurbishment strategy, as this is essential to prevent an increase in low-level exposure in the English housing stock.
  • The continued promotion of advice to owner-occupiers and remind private/social landlords to perform regular boiler and gas cooker servicing to help reduce exposure.
  • Education/promotion should continue to focus on behavioural changes such as smoking outdoors, using extractor fans during cooking and allowing for additional ventilation through window opening.

Author of the 2016 report Clive Shrubsole says: ‘The findings of our report seem more pertinent today than ever, particularly in light of the pandemic. There are still significant groups of people who are at increased risk, simply because of where they live.’

There are no ‘safe levels’ of air pollution, whether that is indoors or outdoors. Air pollutants are present in every home. However, there are large groups of people who are being put at greater risk due to the current housing policy approach. This has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased requirements for people to remain at home.

Now we face the challenges of climate change and pressures on nations to cut down emissions, our lifestyles will change, with less travel and more homeworking.

As we face up to the dual challenges of the Housing Trilemma and climate change, there is a unique opportunity to put health at the heart of housing policy and protect vulnerable people who are currently being put at risk.

Photo by James Fitzgerald

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M Moylan
M Moylan
23 days ago

The quality of indoor air is a major contributory to the chronic and acute respiratory disease that 1 billion people suffer from worldwide. We have to work harder on prevention and of giving people the real opportunity to be able to access air free of pathogens and contaminants while they are at home.

peter murtagh
peter murtagh
21 days ago

I have access to a private garden yet often cannot use it. I have a neighbour who burns raw wood in a firepit and a garden hut woodburner , sometimes at the same time, at any time of the day or night. And I mean anytime. I have repeatedly called on my local authority Environmental Services, long before the pandemic. Their only action was to advise me that I was not legally entitled to use my garden, and to go indoors and shut all windows, doors and vents, problem solved. Of course I challenge this, and the officers who attended denied saying that, despite there being witnesses. The authority took six months to respond in writing ; and did confirm that I have the right to use my garden . However, they have taken no action against the repeated fire burning.