The three paradoxes of air quality

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Air pollution is a silent killer, especially the smallest dust particles which may take years and years of chronic exposure to show their deadly effects on human health. But this is just one of the three paradoxes of air quality, says Myriam Tryjefaczka, from Camfil Farr, a Swedish company manufacturing ventilation and air filtering systems.

Myriam Tryjefaczka is sustainability officer at the Camfil Farr Group. She submitted this commentary in exclusivity to EurActiv.

"The Clean Air for Europe programme was a fundamental step for evaluating the effects of ambient air pollution and developing a European policy to deal with it. It revealed that 310,000 Europeans were dying prematurely from the negative health effects of air pollution.

On average, air pollution reduces life expectancy by nine months and could cost the European community €80 billion per year. These figures could be even higher today since new Eastern European countries, known to have serious air quality problems, have joined the EU.

The report "Air Quality in Europe 2011", published on 9 November 2011, shows that levels of SOX, NOX heavy metals and coarse particles have decreased, but PM 10 concentrations (particle matter above 10 micrometers in diameter) and ozone levels remain alarming.

As a result, 20% of the EU urban population was living in areas where the 24-hour limit value for PM 10 concentrations was exceeded in 2009. However, 80-90% of the EU urban population was also exposed to levels of PM 10 that exceeded the more stringent air quality guidelines of the World Health Organisation (WHO). The situation does not seem to be improving, reports the European Environmental Agency.

This situation points to three paradoxes about air quality.

The first is that PM 2.5 (particle matters bellow 2.5 micrometers in diameter), by far the most harmful, remain invisible and less monitored. Large epidemiological studies have found the correlation between chronic exposure to particle matter and cardiovascular diseases.  In the United States, PM 2.5 concentrations have been monitored for more than 10 years, allowing a better understanding of their health effects. PM 2.5, made of ultrafine down to nanosize particles, are the most harmful fraction, as they are small enough to penetrate deeply into the lungs, enter the walls of blood vessels and directly harm our organs, such as the heart, brain, liver or endocrine system. Air pollution is a silent killer. It will kill us, without revealing its face, after years and years of chronic exposure, or because air pollution has sudden effects on people who tend to be vulnerable to it.

Recent measurements made on 15 November 2011 by Camfil Farr’s mobile laboratory in The Hague, in the Netherlands, showed that PM 10 level concentrations in this city were six times higher than the WHO’s guidelines values of 20µg/m3. We counted 2,000 PM 10 particles per m3. At the same time, the concentration of particles between 0.02 and 1µm in size (a smaller sub-fraction of PM 2.5) was dramatically higher – above 100,000 million particles per m3. Even if the figures are hard to believe, air pollution monitoring systems in Europe, based on PM 10 weight only, underestimate the concentration of ultrafine and nanosize particles, which are by far the most harmful. We seem to be as blind and ignorant as before the invention of the microscope.

If ambient air pollution is harmful, we could think logically and hope that we are safe indoors at home… Here comes the second air quality paradox: we spend close to 90% of our life indoors, but air in the indoor environment can be up to 50 times more polluted than outdoor air.

The most paradoxical aspect of air quality is that outdoor air pollutants infiltrate our buildings, where they can accumulate and combine or react with other air pollutants and particles generated by building materials, the burning of wood in stoves and fireplaces, DIY products, painting and cleaning products, cooking, pets, candles, incense sticks, air fresheners and other sources.

In 2008, the EnVIE report, sponsored by EU Commission, revealed that more than 50% of the diseases caused by poor indoor air quality (mainly cardiovascular and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, COPD) were due to the health impact of outdoor air combustion particles infiltrating the indoor environment.

Therefore, we can be exposed to diesel fumes from vehicle traffic in all kinds of interior spaces, such as day care centres, schools, offices and our bedrooms. The EnVIE report evaluates that the equivalent of 2 million healthy years are lost every year because of air pollution. Again, this impact is hard to visualise. We need to put tangible figures on air pollution again. Considering that Europe has an active population of approximately 230 million people, this means that around 0.9% of Europeans, who could potentially work, are instead continuously uncomfortable, ill, on sick leave, have to stay at home to take care of a sick child, or even die. This affects European productivity and health care costs significantly (by around €110 billion annually).

The good news is that technologies and regulations to reduce people’s exposure to air pollutants are converging to support the creation of healthy indoor environments. Reduction at source is addressed by REACH, a set of EU regulations on the use of chemicals, and the construction material labelling directive. They are powerful tools that could play a role in reducing the exposure of people to indoor air pollution. Building ventilation systems are essential for renewing indoor air at rates that keep indoor contaminants levels low. However, ventilation must be associated to air cleaning technologies and air filtration to prevent outdoor combustion particles and gases from entering buildings.

Unfortunately, as a third paradox, current climate and energy efficiency policies development could create a worse indoor air quality and impact public health. In the context of climate change and the development of policies to promote energy efficiency, such as the Eco-design Directive, the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) and other Energy Efficiency related directives, ventilation systems are expected to become more energy-efficient and the energy needed to filter air has to be reduced to a minimum.

Buildings are being increasingly insulated and it has been known for a long time that such “tightly” insulated indoor environments have a detrimental effect on health and productivity, unless they are balanced by appropriate ventilation.

Energy policies are currently focusing on the primary target of energy conservation. If these concepts are simplified too much, indoor air quality and the health of Europeans will definitely be compromised.

In the Promoting actions for healthy indoor air IAIAQ project report published in May 2011, experts from the EU Commission confirmed again that the most beneficial measure to create healthy indoor environments would be to integrate Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) in a better way in directives related to the energy efficiency of buildings.

The majority of solutions for effective ventilation and air filtration have proved to be energy-efficient. The existing standards EN13779 and EN 779 should be integrated in all related regulatory frameworks for reducing energy consumption in order to design energy-efficient ventilation systems and buildings that could also fulfil the essential requirement for indoor air quality.

There is reason for hope. In 2013, the next revision of the EU’s air policy will provide an excellent opportunity to better integrate indoor air quality considerations and take action towards effective strategies to create healthy and energy-efficient indoor environments for Europeans.

Policies that do not deliver balanced benefits from an economic, social and environmental perspective will not have a sustainable outcome. Political will, as well as a long-term vision, are missing. A crossover approach between the EU Commission's DG Enterprise, DG SANCO and DG Energy is more than needed. Public health is at stake and citizens are becoming more aware of the health impact of air pollution and the challenges related to indoor air quality.

In the UK, Client Earth, an NGO, is suing the government for failing to protect people. No one can say "we didn't know" anymore. Europeans citizens deserve to be protected from air pollution by EU and national governments."