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office air quality

Delta-Simons’ Senior Air Quality Consultant, Siobhan Goodman, provides an in-depth insight into the detriment of poor air quality, what to consider when acquiring property and reveals why air quality should be at the top of your Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) strategy.

A Healthy Workplace Environment: What Does This Mean?

90% of our time is spent indoors, yet many people do not consider the health impacts of increased levels of CO2 in the room, or the presence of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), a bi-product of off-gassing from things such as newly bought furniture, paint, perfumes, as well as outdoor pollutants entering the building from sources such as transport, energy supply, dust, agriculture, waste management or other air pollutants.

The effects of poor air quality on the human body, both physically and mentally cannot be ignored. Eye irritation, headaches, dizziness, fatigue and inability to concentrate are some of the few subclinical Sickness Building Syndrome (SBS) symptoms that often get attributed to other possible causes. Chronic long term exposure to air pollution, both indoors and outdoors, can lead to more serious diseases such as cardiovascular disease, strokes and a variety of cancers as well as some studies presenting evidence of links to Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

“Indoor exposure to air pollutants causes very significant damage to health globally[.] Despite this, public health awareness on indoor air pollution has lagged behind that on outdoor air pollution.” - WHO Guidelines for Indoor Air Quality,2010 

Many people breathe air that fails to achieve the WHO guidelines with air pollution killing more than an estimated 7 million people per year, world-wide, prematurely, of which 3.7 million are attributed to poor indoor air quality. The majority of humans can agree we all have a right to access clean water, but why does this not extend to our right to breathe clean air.

But the effects of poor air quality aren’t limited to human health. According to the 2004 study ‘The effects of indoor air quality on performance and productivity’, the effects of poor indoor air quality have a direct impact on performance and productivity. The study states that the data collected from a series of experiments where participants in office buildings were exposed to a variety of air quality levels, that “[t]he size of the effect on most aspects of office work performance appears to be as high as 6-9%[.]

Negating acknowledgement of the dangers of air pollution and poor air quality (indoor or outdoor) and negating taking action to mitigate the risks is both a short and long term risk we can’t afford.

Occupational Health and Exposure: What’s Safe?

So we know that poor air quality and air pollution is bad for our health and bad for business. But what does ‘bad’ actually mean? The air we breathe contains a mixture of liquids and gases containing a variety of chemicals (known as Particulate Matter or PM for short) some of which, in higher concentrations, can have an adverse effect on our bodies. The most damaging of these particles are known as PM2.5.  PM2.5 particles are invisible to the naked eye, 30 times smaller than a strand of human hair, and can be inhaled into our lungs, passed into our bloodstream and, subsequently, enter our organs. 

Taking the UK as an example, the current legal limit of PM2.5 in the UK is set at nearly twice the level the WHO recommends (5 µg/m 3 per annum). The Air Quality Standards Regulations 2010 states that concentrations of air pollution  PM2.5 must not exceed an annual average of 25 µg/m3. Whilst the latest figures provided by the government demonstrate a marked decrease in exposure to  PM2.5 toxins, exposure is still relatively high when we consider the recommended levels of exposure presented by the WHO. The WHO states that exposure to PM2.5 is estimated to be on par with other major global health risks such as unhealthy diets and tobacco smoking. Despite air pollution being coined as the new second-hand smoke, UK regulations relating to indoor air quality continues to be vague.

The HSE’s INDG244 Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations and the related Approved Code of Practice (ACoP), surmises that indoor air quality should be at least equal to, but ideally better than, the air quality outside your building. Regulation 6 of the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 states: “Effective and suitable provision shall be made to ensure that every enclosed workplace is ventilated by a sufficient quantity of fresh or purified air." The ACOP also states that “The air which is introduced should, as far as possible, be free of any impurity which is likely to be offensive or cause ill health". 

Many harmful substances are covered by the COSHH 2002 regulations, Workplace Exposure Limits (WELs), requiring employers to control substances in workplaces that are hazardous to health. COSHH regulations state that measures need to be taken to ensure the internal environment maintains good air quality and reduces the presence of common indoor air pollutants such as CO2, NO2, and VOCs. However, like the recommended levels of  PM2.5, being below recommended exposure limits does not make exposure to these substances safe.

Furthermore, according to the Institute of Air Quality (IAQM) guidance, places of work, such as offices, are not classified as sensitive receptors. Currently, there is no direct requirement for employers to consider conducting an Indoor Air Quality Assessment, let alone put measures in place to improve current air quality levels. However, every year we, Delta-Simons, are seeing more and more companies incorporate sustainable measures to reduce their impact on air quality. In light of how vague the current guidance is and the levels of exposure not truly combating the issue, one has to ask the question, why?

It could be to mitigate any legal issues relating to the HSE guidance and further, the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Occupiers Liability Act 1984; “an employer has a duty of care to ensure that a safe and healthy environment is provided”. It could be to improve productivity output and reduce worker sick days. However, I believe the motivations behind companies looking to improve their indoor air quality runs deeper.

To learn more about the larger picture of air quality, climate change impacts, and operating healthy buildings check out the full original blog here on our associate Delta-Simons website.

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