Impacts of Air Pollution from and on the Built Environment

Air pollution is understood to directly and indirectly contribute to a range of social, economic and environmental impacts.

Impacts on Human Health

91% of world’s population, urban and rural, live in places with air that exceeds WHO guidelines for key pollutants [1]

  • Air pollution is the largest environmental killer, with approximately 8 million deaths annually attributed to air pollution, predominantly in developing countries. 4.2 million of these deaths are a result of exposure to ambient (outdoor) air pollution, and 3.8 million are attributed to the result of household exposure to smoke from dirty cookstoves and fuels [2]. This death toll is often related to the emission of Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (SLCPs), consisting of particulate matter such as black carbon, or greenhouse gases such as methane, which are a common by-product of traditional combustion practices for heat or energy in developing nations. These SLCPs are directly linked to respiratory diseases, cancer, strokes and heart disease [3]. Over one-third of global death from heart disease is attributed to the impact of polluted air [4].
  • Airborne particles of dust from construction, such as hardwood or silica dust, are also understood to cause severe health impacts including silicosis, asthma and heart disease [5]. Silica dust is often produced in the creation of concrete, so exposure to this toxic substance causes health risks across the built environment worldwide.
  • In our homes, schools and work environments across the world, poor indoor air quality is understood to reduce cognitive functioning, productivity and wellbeing. The impact of airborne chemicals in the indoor environment, such as Volatile Organic Compounds, is understood to cause a range of adverse health effects, including ear, nose and throat irritation, nausea and headaches [6].
    • Focus on work environments – the business case for better air: Studies by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have shown that workplaces with a specific focus on VOC minimisation and enhanced ventilation lead to superior cognitive functioning from the occupants than equivalent environments with higher indoor pollutants and lower fresh air intake. Cognitive scores were demonstrated in controlled trials to be 101% higher in these experiments, which reveals the potential impact on concentration, productivity and work quality polluted air could be having in a work environment [7].

Air pollution costs the global economy $5 trillion every year in welfare costs [8]

Impacts on the Environment

Widespread and fast action to reduce short-lived climate pollutant emissions has the potential to reduce the amount of warming that would occur over the next few decades by as much as 0.5°C [9].

  • With close to 40% of global energy-related carbon emissions being released from buildings, this represents a substantial input to anthropogenic climate forcing from carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide has at atmospheric lifespan of hundreds of years, meaning emissions released today will impact the climate for generations to come.
  • Other greenhouse gases, including short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), are also being emitted from our buildings and communities and having a severe environmental impact. It is estimated that 45% of current global warming is attributed to the impact of SLCPs, such as black carbon, methane or hydroflourocarbons [9].
  • Particulate matter (PM10) can create different, but equally damaging environmental impacts to greenhouse gases. Airborne course and fine particulate matter can directly alter the global balance of incoming solar radiation, distort the albedo effect and react with other pollutants [10].
  • The emissions impacting the natural environment are not only from the operational phase of a building, but also include those embodied in the life cycle - both from the construction and demolition of buildings and cities. A global supply chain, including excavation, brick-making, transportation, and demolition can all be environmentally damaging, and ‘build in’ embodied emissions to a building.

Impacts on Buildings

56% of cities and towns monitoring pollution locally have levels 3.5 times or more above WHO guidelines [11]

Ironically perhaps, the air pollution that is partially created by buildings are directly impacting their ability to perform in a sustainable way.

  • Where outdoor air is polluted, natural or passive ventilation strategies are often unsuitable due to ingress of polluted air and the health risks this would pose. Energy-utilising air filtration is often used as an alternative. This can further increase energy use from a building (unless generated by renewable sources or utilising highly efficient mechanical ventilation systems, such as heat recovery), which can lead to a pollution multiplier effect.
  • Increased use of air-conditioning systems is understood to create local microclimatic warming impacts due to expulsion of hot air, exacerbating the urban heat island effect. This can increase the demand for indoor conditioning and the equipment noise created can further reduce the practicality of natural ventilation. Global energy demand from air conditioners is expected to triple by 2050, so the negative impact on global air quality is likely to increase [12].
  • However, even inside buildings with limited exposure to toxic materials or chemicals, the risk from outdoor pollution remains present. It is believed that most of our exposure to outdoor air pollutants actually occurs when we are inside buildings, due to infiltration through windows, apertures or cracks in the building fabric [13].

 

Next - Solutions to air pollution caused by and impacting built environment 

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Footnotes:
[1] World Health Organisation. (2018). Ambient (outdoor) air quality and health [online] Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/ambient-(outdoor)-air-quality-and-health [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]
[2] World Health Organisation. (n.d). Air pollution [online] Available at: https://www.who.int/airpollution/en/ [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]
[3] World Health Organisation. (n.d). Reducing global health risks through mitigation of short-lived climate pollutants [online] Available at: https://www.who.int/phe/health_topics/outdoorair/climate-reducing-health-risks-faq/en/ [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]
[4] BreatheLife. (n.d.) Health and Climate Impacts [online] Available at: http://breathelife2030.org/the-issue/health-and-climate-impacts/ [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]
[5] Safety and Health (2015) Silicosis: what it is and how to avoid it [online] Available at: https://www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com/articles/12507-silicosis-what-it-is-and-how-to-avoid-it [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]
[6] Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.) Volatile Organic Compounds’ Impact on Indoor Air Quality [online] Available at: https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/volatile-organic-compounds-im... [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]
[7] Allen, J., MacNaughton P, et al. (2016) Associations of Cognitive Function Scores with Carbon Dioxide, Ventilation, and Volatile Organic Compound Exposures in Office Workers: A Controlled Exposure Study of Green and Conventional Office Environments. Environmental Health Perspectives [Online] Available at: https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/10.1289/ehp.1510037 [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]
[8] World Environment Day (2019). China to host World Environment Day 2019 on air pollution [online] Available at: http://www.worldenvironmentday.global/2018/hi/node/2700 [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]
[9] Climate and Clean Air Coalition. (n.d.) Short-Lived Climate Pollutants [online] Available at: http://ccacoalition.org/en/content/short-lived-climate-pollutants [Accessed 11. Apr. 2019]
[10] Mukherjee, Arideep & Agrawal, Madhoolika. (2017). World air particulate matter: sources, distribution and health effects. Environmental Chemistry Letters. [online] Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313920249_World_air_particulate... [Accessed 11. Apr. 2019]
[11] BreatheLife. (n.d.) Who it affects [online] Available at: http://breathelife2030.org/the-issue/who-it-affects/ [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]
[12] International Energy Agency. (2018) The Future of Cooling. Opportunities for energy-efficient air conditioning [online] Available at: http://www.oecd.org/about/publishing/TheFutureofCooling2018Corrigendumpa... [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]
[13] Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (2017) The 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building [online] Available at: https://forhealth.org/9_Foundations_of_a_Healthy_Building.February_2017.pdf [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]

Air pollution is understood to directly and indirectly contribute to a range of social, economic and environmental impacts.

Impacts on Human Health

91% of world’s population, urban and rural, live in places with air that exceeds WHO guidelines for key pollutants [1]

  • Air pollution is the largest environmental killer, with approximately 8 million deaths annually attributed to air pollution, predominantly in developing countries. 4.2 million of these deaths are a result of exposure to ambient (outdoor) air pollution, and 3.8 million are attributed to the result of household exposure to smoke from dirty cookstoves and fuels [2]. This death toll is often related to the emission of Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (SLCPs), consisting of particulate matter such as black carbon, or greenhouse gases such as methane, which are a common by-product of traditional combustion practices for heat or energy in developing nations. These SLCPs are directly linked to respiratory diseases, cancer, strokes and heart disease [3]. Over one-third of global death from heart disease is attributed to the impact of polluted air [4].
  • Airborne particles of dust from construction, such as hardwood or silica dust, are also understood to cause severe health impacts including silicosis, asthma and heart disease [5]. Silica dust is often produced in the creation of concrete, so exposure to this toxic substance causes health risks across the built environment worldwide.
  • In our homes, schools and work environments across the world, poor indoor air quality is understood to reduce cognitive functioning, productivity and wellbeing. The impact of airborne chemicals in the indoor environment, such as Volatile Organic Compounds, is understood to cause a range of adverse health effects, including ear, nose and throat irritation, nausea and headaches [6].
    • Focus on work environments – the business case for better air: Studies by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have shown that workplaces with a specific focus on VOC minimisation and enhanced ventilation lead to superior cognitive functioning from the occupants than equivalent environments with higher indoor pollutants and lower fresh air intake. Cognitive scores were demonstrated in controlled trials to be 101% higher in these experiments, which reveals the potential impact on concentration, productivity and work quality polluted air could be having in a work environment [7].

Air pollution costs the global economy $5 trillion every year in welfare costs [8]

Impacts on the Environment

Widespread and fast action to reduce short-lived climate pollutant emissions has the potential to reduce the amount of warming that would occur over the next few decades by as much as 0.5°C [9].

  • With close to 40% of global energy-related carbon emissions being released from buildings, this represents a substantial input to anthropogenic climate forcing from carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide has at atmospheric lifespan of hundreds of years, meaning emissions released today will impact the climate for generations to come.
  • Other greenhouse gases, including short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), are also being emitted from our buildings and communities and having a severe environmental impact. It is estimated that 45% of current global warming is attributed to the impact of SLCPs, such as black carbon, methane or hydroflourocarbons [9].
  • Particulate matter (PM10) can create different, but equally damaging environmental impacts to greenhouse gases. Airborne course and fine particulate matter can directly alter the global balance of incoming solar radiation, distort the albedo effect and react with other pollutants [10].
  • The emissions impacting the natural environment are not only from the operational phase of a building, but also include those embodied in the life cycle - both from the construction and demolition of buildings and cities. A global supply chain, including excavation, brick-making, transportation, and demolition can all be environmentally damaging, and ‘build in’ embodied emissions to a building.

Impacts on Buildings

56% of cities and towns monitoring pollution locally have levels 3.5 times or more above WHO guidelines [11]

Ironically perhaps, the air pollution that is partially created by buildings are directly impacting their ability to perform in a sustainable way.

  • Where outdoor air is polluted, natural or passive ventilation strategies are often unsuitable due to ingress of polluted air and the health risks this would pose. Energy-utilising air filtration is often used as an alternative. This can further increase energy use from a building (unless generated by renewable sources or utilising highly efficient mechanical ventilation systems, such as heat recovery), which can lead to a pollution multiplier effect.
  • Increased use of air-conditioning systems is understood to create local microclimatic warming impacts due to expulsion of hot air, exacerbating the urban heat island effect. This can increase the demand for indoor conditioning and the equipment noise created can further reduce the practicality of natural ventilation. Global energy demand from air conditioners is expected to triple by 2050, so the negative impact on global air quality is likely to increase [12].
  • However, even inside buildings with limited exposure to toxic materials or chemicals, the risk from outdoor pollution remains present. It is believed that most of our exposure to outdoor air pollutants actually occurs when we are inside buildings, due to infiltration through windows, apertures or cracks in the building fabric [13].

 

Next - Solutions to air pollution caused by and impacting built environment 

____

Footnotes:
[1] World Health Organisation. (2018). Ambient (outdoor) air quality and health [online] Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/ambient-(outdoor)-air-quality-and-health [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]
[2] World Health Organisation. (n.d). Air pollution [online] Available at: https://www.who.int/airpollution/en/ [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]
[3] World Health Organisation. (n.d). Reducing global health risks through mitigation of short-lived climate pollutants [online] Available at: https://www.who.int/phe/health_topics/outdoorair/climate-reducing-health-risks-faq/en/ [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]
[4] BreatheLife. (n.d.) Health and Climate Impacts [online] Available at: http://breathelife2030.org/the-issue/health-and-climate-impacts/ [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]
[5] Safety and Health (2015) Silicosis: what it is and how to avoid it [online] Available at: https://www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com/articles/12507-silicosis-what-it-is-and-how-to-avoid-it [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]
[6] Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.) Volatile Organic Compounds’ Impact on Indoor Air Quality [online] Available at: https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/volatile-organic-compounds-impact-indoor-air-quality [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]
[7] Allen, J., MacNaughton P, et al. (2016) Associations of Cognitive Function Scores with Carbon Dioxide, Ventilation, and Volatile Organic Compound Exposures in Office Workers: A Controlled Exposure Study of Green and Conventional Office Environments. Environmental Health Perspectives [Online] Available at: https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/10.1289/ehp.1510037 [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]
[8] World Environment Day (2019). China to host World Environment Day 2019 on air pollution [online] Available at: http://www.worldenvironmentday.global/2018/hi/node/2700 [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]
[9] Climate and Clean Air Coalition. (n.d.) Short-Lived Climate Pollutants [online] Available at: http://ccacoalition.org/en/content/short-lived-climate-pollutants [Accessed 11. Apr. 2019]
[10] Mukherjee, Arideep & Agrawal, Madhoolika. (2017). World air particulate matter: sources, distribution and health effects. Environmental Chemistry Letters. [online] Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313920249_World_air_particulate_matter_sources_distribution_and_health_effects [Accessed 11. Apr. 2019]
[11] BreatheLife. (n.d.) Who it affects [online] Available at: http://breathelife2030.org/the-issue/who-it-affects/ [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]
[12] International Energy Agency. (2018) The Future of Cooling. Opportunities for energy-efficient air conditioning [online] Available at: http://www.oecd.org/about/publishing/TheFutureofCooling2018Corrigendumpages.pdf [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]
[13] Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (2017) The 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building [online] Available at: https://forhealth.org/9_Foundations_of_a_Healthy_Building.February_2017.pdf [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019]
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