Building engineers set to influence health and wellbeing more than medicine and social care, speaker claims

A leading respiratory illness expert has claimed that facilities management and building services engineering will have a greater influence on worldwide human health and wellbeing than the medical and social care professions.

Dr Philip Webb, Chief Executive of Respiratory Innovation Wales (RIW), told a technical briefing hosted in London by the CIBSE Patrons that ‘the huge scale of the indoor environmental quality (IEQ) crisis’ meant that greater investment in building and facilities management would be more effective than medical treatment in reducing excess deaths related to respiratory, cardiovascular, and mental health conditions.

He called for ‘a fundamental reassessment’ of the way public money and resources were allocated ‘to address the areas of greatest need’, pointing out that air quality was responsible for higher numbers of excess deaths than the COVID-19 pandemic, cancer, heart disease, and mental health combined. However, he said, it receives just ‘a tiny fraction’ of the public money and resources allocated to health and wellbeing services.

According to data from Public Health Wales, COVID-19 was responsible for 38 deaths per 100,000 of the global population, smoking annually accounts for 180, and cancer 278, but air quality is responsible for up to 1,400 excess deaths per 100,000 every year. Philip Webb also pointed out that 3,000 new occupational asthma cases are reported in the UK every year linked to the air quality in workplaces.

He said: “We are suffering from a legacy of poor building design dating back to the 1960s and 70s. With people spending, on average, up to 90% of their time indoors, it is indoor air quality (IAQ) that is the most serious issue. However, what small amount of government money is spent on environmental quality is aimed at addressing outdoor pollution, so it is increasingly important that we change the whole narrative around this issue. If properly supported, facilities and building management systems could have a far bigger impact on health and wellbeing than the whole of the health and social care system globally.”

RIW, part of the Raven Delta Group, calculated that in Wales alone £2.4 billion (£763 million on direct health costs) had been spent on mitigating the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. The country also spends £409 m annually on cancer care, £446 m on cardiovascular disease, and £750 m on mental health, but less than £20m on air quality measures largely focused on outdoor air quality.

“It can’t be right that the biggest killer gets the smallest fraction of the money…and, in effect, relatively little is being spent on IEQ,” Philip Webb told the meeting. “However, the insurance industry is starting to make its presence felt because more claims are being made for workplace ill health.”

He added the launch later this year of a new British Standard for health and wellbeing in buildings, British Standard 40102 (Part One), would provide benchmarks against which buildings could be measured. The world’s first standard of its type, it was unveiled at the recent COP28 climate conference in Dubai. To be formally launched in the UK later this year, it provides recommendations for measuring, monitoring, and reporting IEQ (Indoor Environmental Quality) in all types of non-domestic buildings, and includes an evaluation and rating system for air quality, lighting, thermal comfort, and acoustics.

The meeting then discussed the need to improve the quality of metering and monitoring devices for airborne contaminants so that the ventilation industry, in particular, could more accurately assess the measures it needed to take. Philip Webb also urged building engineers to adopt ‘whole building solutions’ based around filtration, purification, and air flow technologies supported by greater use of digital monitoring and control powered by AI.

Helen Yeulet, director of Competence and Compliance at the Building Engineering Services Association, told the CIBSE Patrons event addressing this issue was one of the challenges faced by an industry ‘trying to cope with a sizeable skills gap’.



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