Air pollution - the silent killer

Simon Tranter, head of sustainability at Willmott Dixon Interiors, tells us why we need to focus on air pollution for more than just World Environment Day...

The scourge of single-use plastic has made all the headlines over the past twelve to eighteen months – and rightly so! Interest in plastic waste has even caught the attention of the UK’s hardiest of environmental disbelievers. Why? Well, a big part of me thinks our physical connection with the issue might have something to do with it. Simply put, we find it easier to act when we can see, feel and touch the problem. We know how much plastic we use throw away, and we can see it spoiling our beautiful waterways, oceans and countryside.

Plastic waste is an important issue. But it falls a long way short of the escalating crisis that is air pollution.

A shocking impact

Outdoor air pollution causes an estimated 40,000 deaths in the UK every year, with the most deprived areas of our country suffering the most. It is linked to asthma, diabetes dementia, obesity and cancer, and it’s estimated that those exposed to it lose around 15 minutes of life expectancy each day. The financial impact of this on businesses and health services is around £20bn a year.

The environment suffers too. Nitrogen dioxide (from burning fossil fuels) contributes to acidification and pollutes soil and watercourses, harming plants and animals.

Unfortunately, construction plays a part in air pollution. The use of machinery (particularly diesel, our biggest pollutant), the transport of people and materials, dust, and the processing of waste – almost every air pollutant could be attributed to one or more of these construction-related processes.

Making a difference

As a responsible business, at Willmott Dixon we work hard to mitigate our impact. We use an internet-based risk assessment system (known as mi|risk) to identify high risk sites so that we can manage them accordingly. We cover waste or soil as its being transported from site with netting or sheeting. We use sustainable travel plans to reduce the need for travel. We work with our supply chain partners to help them reduce the impact of their vehicles, and stipulate the use of newer (more efficient) plant on site. We offer generous bonuses to our people who choose low emissions company or private cars, and incentivise cycling and car sharing.

Then there’s the impact of the buildings we construct. From cleaning and cosmetic products to the use of fossil fuels in boilers and generators – many decisions we make impact air quality.

Much of the UK’s building stock is old and inefficient, so construction companies like ours do a lot of work to bring it up to modern standards – incorporating new technology and improving design standards and specifications.

And it’s not just the air outside we need to worry about. Since we typically spend up to 90% of our time indoors, improving indoor air quality in the buildings we construct is key. By focusing on design standards for achieving low levels of airborne pollutants (for example, by applying frameworks such as the WELLTM Building Standard), a building can achieve good indoor air quality. Responsible constructors should also initiate monitoring studies to verify that designed levels of air quality have been achieved.

Change for the future

Like climate change, the problem of air quality is easy to ignore, because it’s hard to link the activity – driving a diesel car, or burning waste, for example – with the impact that it has. You can rarely see it or smell it, and you certainly can’t touch it. For this reason, getting people to act is hard.

But the tide is turning. The Government’s Clean Air Strategy 2019 has set out how businesses and government can work together to improve. In 2019 a fresh inquest was granted after new evidence had come to light about the role air pollution played in the death of a nine year old girl. And days like today’s World Environment Day, focusing on air pollution, are also critical in raising awareness. Slowly, people are recognising air pollution for the public health crisis that it is.

Air pollution is a complicated issue – pollutants come from a variety of different sources. Below is a table which sets out some of the most common ones, and where they come from (Source: House of Commons Library, 2018 – Brexit and Air Quality).

Common Pollutants

Impacts and/or Consequences

Sulphur Dioxide: An acid gas formed when fuels containing sulphur impurities are burned. The main man-made sources include fossil fuel combustion and incineration of waste.

· Constriction of airways, particularly to people with asthma

· Irritates the nose and throat

· Symptoms visible after just 10-15 minutes of exposure

· Contributes to acid rain formation, damaging the environment and impacting biodiversity

Nitrogen oxides: Main sources include power generation, industrial combustion and road transport.

· Aggravates symptoms of those already suffering lung or heart conditions, reducing quality of life and life expectancy

· Inflammation of airways

· Increased susceptibility to allergens and respiratory infections

· Negatively effects vegetation through leaf damage and reduced growth. Makes vegetation more vulnerable to disease and frost

Particulate Matter (PM2.5 and PM10): Sources of PM are classified as either primary, such as particles from engine combustion or break and tyre wear; or secondary, when other chemicals react to form PM in the atmosphere.

· Effects most impact vulnerable groups such as those with existing lung and heart conditions, the elderly and the very young

· Causes symptoms such as asthma attacks, bronchitis, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.

· PM2.5 lasts longer in the air and can be absorbed further into the organs.

Ozone: A pollutant gas which is not emitted directly from any source in significant quantities, but is produced by reactions between other pollutants.

· Causes irritation to the eyes, nose and lungs, causing coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath

· Those most at risk include people with asthma, young children and older adults as well as some people with genetic characteristics or reduced intake of certain nutrients and vitamins such as vitamins C and E

Lead and heavy metals: Anthropogenic emissions of toxic metals originate mainly from fossil fuel combustion, industrial processes and waste incineration.

· Many heavy metals are toxic to organisms at low concentrations. Most cannot be broken down, resulting in accumulation and being transported from one environment to another, impacting biodiversity

· Lead is a neuro-toxin which, once in the body, accumulates in the bones and can have adverse effects on the nervous system, kidneys, immune system, reproductive system and the cardiovascular system. Most common effects are on neurological development of children and cardiovascular issues, such as heart disease, in adults

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH): The main sources are domestic heating (wood and coal burning), waste burning, coke production and steel production.

· PAHs are a large group of chemical compounds that are toxic and carcinogenic.

· Long-term exposure can cause cataracts, kidney and liver damage and jaundice with evidence also linking long-term exposure to a range of cancers.

By working together to combat air pollution we can make a positive change for society and our environment.