Clean Air Night – a view from behind the scenes

How Hertfordshire County Council and Global Action Plan worked together to launch the UK’s first Clean Air Night

(Matthew Clark is Programme Manager – Air Quality, Sustainable Growth/Public Health Service at Hertfordshire County Council)

Once the sun sets, temperatures drop and many think about reaching for the log pile to set a fire to keep Jack Frost at bay and provide the cosy atmosphere or ‘hygge’ conjured up by the thought of settling down in front of a fire. But what is the real cost of wood burning, a trend that has gripped the nation over the past decade causing domestic burning to be promoted to the undesirable position of leading source of PM2.5 in the UK.

With a job title including the words ‘air quality’ and as a member of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health’s Environmental Pollution Panel I am particularly interested in this source. The cleaner air agenda is getting more complex. The traditional Local Air Quality Management focus on outdoor pollution and more often than not road transport is moving indoors. With us typically spending the majority of our time inside buildings this seems a sensible shift.

Sources of internal air pollution have the potential to create more health impact as we spend more time indoors. With the introduction of more pollution sources we may be looking at an increasingly unhealthy indoor environment in future. There are many sources of indoor air pollution including forever chemicals like fire retardants and VOCs from cleaning products and air fresheners. PM2.5s from solid fuel burning, or ‘wood burning’ as the recent Clean Air Night campaign termed it, is as challenging as any.

I recently heard that 25% of PM2.5s in Birmingham were wood burning derived. Investigation into a high PM2.5 pollution episode in London found some 60% or more of particulates are a product of wood burning. These percentages are significant. With an increasing trend to burn at home, often fuelled by the desire for ‘hygge’ rather than necessity, reductions in pollution from other sectors could be eroded by rising domestic emissions.

And yet this source is poorly understood by the public and is not regulated in the same way as many other polluting activities where the polluter pays principal may exists. In the majority of the country, it is legal to burn wood and other solid fuels in any appliance. Only in Smoke Control Areas does the legislative machinery, and a rather clunky antiquated piece of machine at that, come into force.

Twelve months ago in Hertfordshire, we held a cleaner air seminar for councillors. We presented information to enable evidenced decision making. As a result all Hertfordshire County Council sites are now no vehicle idling areas, our countywide air quality model has been interrogated to understand how the county fairs in future should the Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill move forward, and the first ever Clean Air Night has taken place shining a light on the uncomfortable truth about wood burning.

After hearing evidence around domestic burning a healthy debate took place here in Hertfordshire with officers and councillors. The outcome was a desire to take a leading role in promoting awareness about the impacts of wood burning to our population enabling our residents to make informed decisions on how to heat their homes where they had a choice. A need to acknowledge differences between rural and urban areas and sensitivity in a cost of living crisis was noted – the key public health message of keeping warm in winter must prevail.

We had previously raised our interest with Global Action Plan (GAP), creators of Clean Air Day, and the idea of a sister campaign to promote the message widely had been considered an option. By harnessing the experience and existing networks that GAP had at their disposal a partnership looked promising. And so Clean Air Night (CAN) started to take shape. Importantly wider local authority interest existed with the Surrey Air Alliance and Lancaster City Council also championing action. Knowing we were not a lone local authority voice was crucial and created some hygge of our own.

It was agreed that the first CAN should not be a behavioural change campaign. People need awareness and understanding before considering making a change and public knowledge was known to be low. Instead, dispelling myths around wood burning seemed to fit the narrative we wanted to create. Myths that wood burning is cheaper than using alternative heating systems, is environmentally friendly/carbon neutral and is not a major source of air pollution were picked as key message areas. Overall, we wanted to highlight that wood burning harms everyone’s health.

Crucial to the campaign success was validation of messaging by authoritative voices. Experts in the field were engaged aligning to each myth and detailed reports were drawn on to provide the evidence base. What followed was a four week campaign to deliver messages over the winter period finishing with a summit event. The messaging was made available to all promoting consistency over the widest possible area. The summit gave a platform for those involved to highlight their thinking and allowed experts to showcase the evidence base.

Post campaign, we can start to reflect and evaluate. The campaign received 42 official supporters including the CIEH, Association of Directors of Public Health and NHS trusts. 21% of local authorities shared assets over the campaign lifetime. Over 500 million social media impressions were created prompting over 100,000 views of the Clean Air Hub, a GAP resource. Over 130 people attended the summit. Printed press ran articles including an exclusive to The Times and BBC attention.

In Hertfordshire we promoted organic social media messages and invested in paid for social media. The importance of paid media was a take home from a previous campaign, Let’s Clear the Air, which found they generated more reach and engagement. A local radio advert was created to ensure a mixed media approach. The process enabled us to raise the agenda with senior officers including our Director of Public Health who took up the mantel releasing quotes for press and a video message for the summit event.

Evaluation has found 28% awareness of the campaign after its first year which exceeded expectation. Thanks goes out to all those who have taken part in all stages of the campaign to ensure campaign success including withstanding abrasive efforts from those with vested interests.

Now the conversation has been started in the public domain I hope others feel able to support future year efforts. By continuing the dialogue and raising awareness we can have an impact on health, climate change and global natural systems creating a cleaner, greener and healthier future – something that can created that hygge feeling for us all.

This article was originally published in issue 24 of Air Quality News Magazine


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