Janvi Patel asks whether the latest art installation at Somerset House can increase awareness of bad air quality?

As a Londoner, I love the diversity of the city and the amount of cultural events and experiences that I have access to, with the latest to grab both my attention and the news, being the installation of Air quality pods at Somerset House.

Artist Michael Pinsky has created a circle of five geodesic domes, which allow anyone entering them to experience the polluted environments in five cities across the globe.

And that really interests me because, as a Londoner and someone who cares about the environment, I am acutely aware of the issue of air quality in our capital city.

We must remember that there are also solutions available right now, with ventilation systems that can filter the outdoor air to keep the interior fresh and comfortable.

Janvi Patel Janvi Patel Ventilation specialist at Mitsubishi Electric Living Environment Systems in the UK

From green to unclean

Walking through the pods begins with one that recreates the clean, green air of Tautra island, Norway, which uses an air purification process to strip it of pollutants.

Visitors can then continue through the cities of London, New Delhi, Beijing and São Paulo, all of which suffer from some of the world’s lowest air qualities.

Each pod’s climate is separately controlled to provide an exact representation of the temperature and air quality in each city and this includes the fragrance.  Artist Pinksy is reported as saying he has: “tried to distil the whole bodily sense of being in each place.”

Three heaters create the oppressive heat of New Delhi and a haze machine adds ‘smog’ to hang in the pod, recreating the smell of old cars and industry.  I didn’t see many people linger in this pod for long.

The São Paulo pod contains enough ethanol to make people’s eyes water, whilst the London pod had a fragrance that the artist has called ‘living diesel’ – a smell I know too well.

There’s a point beyond art here

Each pod has been created to replicate the varying levels of ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter in each of these cities.

London’s pod is full of the invisible, but deadly nitrogen, whereas New Delhi’s air is filled with a haze full of airborne particles. 

Studies suggest that the average Londoner could be losing around 16 months of their life due to exposure to current pollution levels. For New Delhi residents, the pollution could shorten their lives by up to 4 years!

So the whole aim of the installation is to increase awareness of the problems of pollution and air quality in our cities and, when you consider that in the not too distant future, the majority of humanity is predicted to live in densely populated, urban environments, then air quality is something we need to be aware of – and need to do something about.

So what can we do?

Solving the problem of poor air quality in our cities will require a concerted effort from government, business and manufacturers, so that we can remove vehicles using older polluting diesel and clean up our external spaces.

This will also take time but there are still things that we as individuals can do to help protect ourselves from air pollution, as my colleague Susan Froome has previously written.

We can also ensure that the buildings within these cities act as a ‘safe haven’ from exterior air pollution and bodies such as BSRIA are working to introduce basic standards for indoor air quality.

 

We must remember that there are also solutions available right now, with ventilation systems that can filter the outdoor air to keep the interior fresh and comfortable.

The best of these include Air Handling Units (AHU) and Lossnay ventilation products that can also recover significant amounts of heating or cooling energy, so that energy and money isn’t wasted.

These mechanical ventilation systems with heat recovery (MVHR) are available for an entire building or for individual rooms, making them accessible for anyone and any building.

A simple, cost effective way of improving air quality

It will take time to fix London’s air quality and get to a city that enhances its resident’s lives rather than harming them, but the news that we took longer to exceed the air quality this year – albeit by a few weeks, has got to be a good starting point.

Let’s hope that enough people visit Somerset House and that we can build even more awareness of the problem – and the solutions available.

Janvi Patel is a ventilation specialist at Mitsubishi Electric Living Environment Systems in the UK.