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The quality of air has a huge impact on our standard of living and the environment.

Indoor pollution

  • In the UK, the majority of people spend over 90% of their time indoors, in an enclosed built environment.

  • Based on reports of indoor air quality surveys of homes in the UK, the concentrations of indoor pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), formaldehyde, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxides are several times higher indoors than outdoors.

  • According to BRE, the total exposure of people to the indoor air pollutants is a concern and should be an important environmental issue for building occupants.

  • Building materials, furnishing, and finishing products such as varnishes and paints can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are known to cause respiratory illness. Research shows that VOCs, are higher in new buildings, and new furniture can double emissions in the environment.

  • Formaldehyde, one of the most common VOCs, is a particular health concern. The use of wood-based panels, such as Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF), for building and furniture, and urea-formaldehyde cavity wall insulation, are major contributory factors to formaldehyde emissions in homes. 

  • An estimated 5.5 million UK buildings contain asbestos. 

  • Houseplants, including spider plants, areca palm, English ivy, gerbera daisy, peace lilies and rubber plants, can substantially reduce internal air pollution. 

  • Typically VOCs can be more than 10 times higher indoors than outdoors.

  • Although not an indoor pollutant the proximity of developments to major roads and Nitrous oxide (NOx)emissions can increase indoor pollutant levels. NOx emissions are also greater for Combined Heat and Power units and large scale gas boilers.

  • S106 or CIL contributions can be required for mitigation or low emissions strategies to reduce air pollution levels.

Effect on health

  • Due to the release of volatile chemicals in the air from building materials and services people can suffer a variety of adverse health effects, including headache, nauseas, respiratory problems, irritation of the eyes and sick building syndrome (SBS). SBS can also be caused by other environmental factors. 

  • In 2010, the committee on the medical effects of air pollution published a report on the ‘Mortality effects of long-term exposure to particulate air pollution in the UK’. The report states that the burden of pollution from particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) is equivalent to 29,000 deaths per year or is equal to a loss of life expectancy of 6 months from birth. 

  • In the UK, asthma affects one in every eleven children, and one in every twelve adults.

  • Asthma attacks hospitalise someone every 8 minutes; 185 people are admitted to hospital because of asthma attacks every day in the UK (a child is admitted to hospital every 20 minutes because of an asthma attack).

  • Asthma UK reports that around 42% of sufferers say that traffic fumes stop them walking in congested areas.

  • NOx can have adverse effects on health, particularly among people with respiratory illness. High levels of exposure have been linked with increased hospital admissions due to respiratory problems, while long-term exposure may affect lung function and increase the response to allergens in sensitive people.

Other effects

  • Air quality can affect biodiversity, therefore impacting on our international obligations under the Habitats Directive. 

  • Odour and dust can be a planning concern, e.g. because of its effect on local amenity. 

  • The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that complaints in the workplace have increased 500% since 1990.

  • According to the Environment Agency, in 2007 there were 151 pollution incidents that had a serious impact on air quality. The waste industry caused two-thirds of these incidents.

Air quality management

  • The air quality strategy for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (2007) sets out standards and objectives for 8 main air pollutants to protect health. If objectives are unlikely to be achieved, the local authority must declare an air quality management area (AQMA).

  • There are currently 32 AQMA in Hertfordshire, spread across 8 of the 10 districts.  Many relate to the fumes emitted by vehicles on the M25 and M1.  Others are in urban centres and along secondary routes.  

  • The 2008 ambient air quality directive aims to improve air quality by setting legally binding limits for concentrations for air pollutants outdoors. These major air pollutants such as particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) can cause impacts on public health and can combine in the atmosphere to form ozone, a harmful air pollutant that is also a potent greenhouse gas. 

  • The local air quality management (LAQM) regime requires every district and unitary authority to review and assess air quality in their area. These reviews identify whether the national objectives are being met and at particular locations. 

  • If the national objectives are not met then the local authority must declare and air quality management area and prepare an air quality action plan. The action plan identifies measures to meet the objectives and can have implications on planning applications.