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Rachel Lekman explores the damage poor air quality can have on people’s health and wellbeing and explains why we are aligning with the British Lung Foundation

In case you missed it, Wednesday 18th November was World COPD day, but unless you know someone who lives with a lung condition, the day may have passed you by.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the name for a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties which affects an estimated 1.2 million people – but these are people who often remain a hidden minority.

People with COPD and other lung conditions are more at risk from the harmful impacts of poor air quality indoors and out, as it can cause a flare up of their symptoms which can in some cases, lead to them ending up in hospital.

Awareness about the importance of improving outdoor air quality for everybody’s health is increasing, and this is part of the reason we see low emission zones and the growth in electric vehicles regularly mentioned in the news.

But few people talk about indoor air quality and yet the average person spends a staggering 92% of their time indoors, so the quality of the air we breathe here is of paramount importance.

That’s why we are working closely with the British Lung Foundation to help increase awareness of the importance of good air quality, both inside and outside our buildings.

We can’t assume that if the external air is clean, the inside will the fine

Rachel Lekman Rachel Lekman Channel marketing manager

The need for research

The British Lung Foundation is the only UK charity looking after the nation’s lungs with the aim of making sure that one day everyone breathes clean air with healthy lungs. Lung disease is the third biggest killer and affects 1 in 5 people in the UK.

For over 30 years, the charity has been at the forefront of research into lung disease, investing over £33 million. This includes £8.6 million for mesothelioma, a devastating form of lung cancer for which there is no cure.

In the last year alone, the British Lung Foundation’s helpline, which supports anyone affected by a lung condition, has answered over 22,000 calls.

The charity aims to improve care for people with lung conditions – and to prevent, treat and cure lung diseases.

Outdoor air

More people appear to be aware of the harm that poor air quality in our urban spaces can do to public health.

The first set of lockdown restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic led to a dramatic fall in pollution and emissions levels across the world, showing how changes in the way we live can make a big difference.

However, as people have returned to work and school, traffic levels in the UK have now reached pre-pandemic levels and there are fears they could rocket even higher if people continue to rely on their private cars, over public transport.

However, just as our urban spaces need to change and we introduce ways to ensure they are much cleaner and healthier for our nation’s lungs, we also need to consider the air quality of our indoor spaces.

Particularly as the pandemic continues throughout the winter meaning people will be spending even more time indoors.

Indoor volatility

Whilst we need to consider the quality of the air outdoors, as this can make its way indoors, we also need to consider the quality of the air inside our buildings.

There are actually lots of hidden and potentially harmful chemicals already indoors in the form of what are known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These come from the things like paint, furniture, photocopiers, printers and even from perfume and dry cleaned clothes.

Now more than ever, we are all very concerned about making sure our indoor spaces are as clean and virus-free as possible, and these cleaning products often include the use of chemical sprays. 

When this cleaning takes place first thing in the morning or at the end of the day after an office, hotel or shop has shut down for the night, ventilation systems tend to be switched off to save energy.  This can be harmful for cleaners and staff working out of normal office operating hours because chemicals are left to linger.


Fresh air

We are also advised to bring in as much ‘fresh’ air into our buildings as possible, but you can’t open a window in the autumn or winter in the UK without  wasting all the energy spent on heating the inside space. 

The situation is exacerbated by the focus on air tightness in Part L of the Building Regulations, which is designed to increase energy efficiency in buildings by cutting down on the ‘leakage’ of air.

All of this puts a greater emphasis on the need to design ventilation systems to support good indoor air quality.

Natural ventilation can be an option but it relies on specialist design to harness natural air currents.

Whilst it offers energy saving benefits and can be a good approach for new buildings, for existing buildings it is much more challenging to adopt.

Energy saving

And this is where Mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) is most effective..

It does use more energy to move air than relying on natural air currents, but it also offers a more predictable and reliable way to move air into and out of, a building.

With MVHR systems, stale air is extracted from a building, but up to 80% of the temperature of the outgoing air is recovered and transferred to the incoming fresh air. 

This helps to keep the interior of the building at a comfortable temperature and helps reduce overall energy costs.

As an example, if the indoor air is heated to 20 degrees Centigrade and the outdoor air is under 10 degrees, then the MVHR helps bring the incoming air quickly up to 16 degrees, meaning you only need energy to heat a further 4 degrees, rather than expending energy to heat it up from 10 degrees.

Slow, constant air movement

Another benefit is that MVHR systems deliver controlled ventilation into a building through slow but constant air movement.  This has an advantage over natural ventilation which delivers uncontrolled and sometimes unreliable air flows.

A steady stream of indoor air is extracted and replaced with fresh air, rather than in ebbs and flows. By delivering a controlled air flow path throughout a building, all occupants can benefit from the improved air quality, rather than those sitting by trickle vents or the open window.

In addition to preserving and reducing energy use, the best MVHR come with filters that help block outdoor pollutants and irritants such as pollen, helping people living with asthma.

We know there is still much work to be done to improve outdoor air quality across the country and so we can’t assume that that external air is free from pollutants or allergens.

MVHR ventilation is key to good indoor air quality as it removes these pollutants in order to deliver fresh air to indoor spaces, whilst also expelling the pollutants generated indoors.

There are few certainties at present with the current pandemic but we do know that increasing the amount of fresh air, inside and outside, could help improve people’s lung health and resilience to respiratory illnesses.

Winter is coming so we do need to find ways of removing stale indoor air and introducing fresh, outdoor air and MVHR provides an ideal solution.

Mitsubishi Electric is a member of the British Lung Foundation’s Living Well Alliance which brings together companies who offer treatments, devices or products that support people to manage their lung conditions.

To find out more about how indoor and outdoor air quality can affect lung health click on the links to visit the British Lung Foundation website.

Rachel Lekman, Channel marketing manager