When it comes to keeping fit and healthy, we’ve all heard the usual advice about eating better and moving more. But there’s another aspect of our day-to-day lives that can have an enormous impact on our overall health and yet it barely registers on most people’s radar – that is the quality of the air inside the spaces where we live, work and play.
With people spending an estimated 90% of their time indoors (and some, such as the elderly, spending even more), indoor air quality is now recognised as a key issue in healthy building design, from homes and offices, to hospitals, schools and factories. Indeed, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that, “Air pollution from both outdoor and indoor sources represents the single largest environmental risk to health globally,” and causes seven million deaths a year, worldwide.
Pollution and our bodies
The effects of exposure to air pollution range from mild to extremely serious, particularly when exposed over a number of years. In the short term, poor air quality can irritate the eyes and respiratory system, and cause symptoms such as dizziness, headaches and nausea. More seriously, it can also affect lung function and exacerbate asthma.
Longer term exposure, over years or lifetimes, can lead to chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, including lung cancer. The heart and blood vessels can also be affected, leading to strokes and hardening of the arteries.
Worryingly, the damage done by excessive air pollution exposure can affect us at all stages of life, with studies linking poor air quality to low birth weight in babies, through to shortened life expectancies and accelerated lung decline later in life. There is even emerging evidence that connects air pollution to a greater risk of dementia and type 2 diabetes in elderly people.
Pollution and our minds
Aside from the long and short-term physical effects, there is growing evidence that air pollution impacts mental health and may be a factor in conditions such as depression and bipolar disorder. It may also have a detrimental effect on children’s learning ability, patient recovery and workforce productivity.
Air quality is part of our overall indoor environment, which has a profound impact on our mental wellbeing. If our surroundings are not comfortable, they will never be conducive to a sense of physical and mental ease – therefore, the psychological benefits of healthy indoor environments are clear.
The financial cost of pollution
For building owners, poor indoor air quality (and poor indoor environments in general) can hit the bottom line: demands from leaseholders and tenants can result in having to carry out costly remedial works to both the building fabric and M&E systems (from lighting to climate control). This can lead to higher running costs and potentially affect market and rental values.
What’s more, the cost of pollution-related illnesses is a heavy burden for our over-stretched healthcare services. Public Health England (PHE) estimates air pollution is responsible for between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths a year, costing the NHS and the private healthcare sector £20bn annually. Further estimates suggest that a 1 µg/m3 reduction in fine particulate air pollution over 18 years could prevent 50,900 cases of coronary heart disease, 16,500 strokes, 9,300 cases of asthma and 4,200 lung cancers in England alone.
Creating healthier environments
With such serious impacts on both our physical and mental health – as well as the financial implications – the importance of indoor air quality and its role within the overall indoor environment is clear. Air quality should be considered a vital component of whole-building climate control and given equal weighting to temperature, energy efficiency, humidity and lighting.
Taking a holistic approach to HVAC system design is the best way to provide a continuous supply of high quality, fresh air and requires a fine balance between air-tightness for energy efficiency and optimising ventilation for good health. In addition, effective filtration measures and a regular programme of servicing and maintenance will ensure the system continues to perform as designed.