Comment & Analysis

Creating healthy, safe and sustainable indoor environments: The impacts of interventions that improve indoor air quality

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Photo by Serena Repice Lentini on Unsplash
Photo by Serena Repice Lentini on Unsplash

On 15 January, the IMechE collaborated with the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee (P&SC) to bring together experts to debate the benefits and drawbacks a variety of interventions to improving indoor air quality.

Indoor air quality

We spend 90% of our time in indoor environments, [2] often within public buildings, the ventilation of which is out of our control. Inadequate ventilation measures can increase the rates of infection transmission and disease, and lead to a decrease in well-being, comfort, and productivity. This is a particularly pertinent issue in schools and offices, where high concentrations of indoor air pollutants have been shown to affect concentration and cognitive function. [3]

As the risks regarding indoor air pollutants are ‘invisible’, indoor air quality is often mismanaged in many buildings and measures to improve it often come second to users’ concerns around saving energy by keeping windows closed and reducing the use of mechanical ventilation systems.

This perceived conflict with action on climate change presents a barrier to progress, with the Chief Medical Officer’s Annual Report in 2022 stating that developing solutions that maximise ventilation, minimise energy use and keep buildings warm in winter and cool in summer is a critical engineering challenge. [4]

National Engineering Policy Centre work

The IMechE’s event follows a series of projects by the National Engineering Policy Centre (NEPC) on indoor environments, prompted by work commissioned during the Covid-19 pandemic by the Government Chief Scientific Adviser on the role of engineering controls. What followed was two reports on infection resilient environments [5], and the interactive report ‘Ventilation Matters’. [6] 

This year the NEPC will release a report that explores the interdependencies regarding safety, sustainability and health in buildings, and outlines potential interventions that are available to embed health considerations in planning for and management of building retrofit, particularly the opportunity to improve indoor air quality.

Parliamentary and Scientific Committee event

The P&SC event looked to build the dialogue within the science and engineering community ahead of the NEPC’s 2024 report and establish indoor air quality as a key issue with important parliamentary figures.

To work towards this goal, this event convened a panel of leading indoor air quality experts, representing a variety of organisations, to discuss this issue. This panel, whose discussion followed a keynote speech from the Royal Academy of Engineering’s (RAEng) Dr Alexandra Smyth, was composed of the following members: 

  • Professor Nicola Carslaw- Professor of Indoor Air Chemistry at the University of York
  • Professor Sani Dimitroulopoulou- Principal Environmental Public Health Scientist on Indoor
  • Environments, Air Quality and Public Health at the UK Health Security Agency
  • Chris Rush- Director and Air Quality Consultant Lead at Hoare Lea and Chair of the Institute of Air Quality Management
  • Mike Ralph FIMechE- Principal Engineer, NHS Scotland Assure
The panel supplied a range of fascinating views and experiences relating to indoor air quality, from cutting edge research conducted in academia, to the risks to human life associated with poor ventilation in healthcare settings.

Chris Rush, Chair of the Institute of Air Quality Management, said of the event: 

“A huge amount of passion and interest around this topic came through – with a range of research, guidance and engagement occurring across a host of groups from professional bodies to academia and public sector. Coming together more with unified approach is certainly something that would benefit us and help us all progress towards our common goal of improving indoor environments.”

Professor Sani Dimitroulopoulou, Principal Environmental Public Health Scientist at the UKHSA, proposed next steps for the field:

“Although indoor air quality is an important component of a healthy indoor environment, our knowledge of air quality indoors and its impact on our health and wellbeing is limited compared to the vast body of evidence on outdoor air. An IAQ Observatory with systematic monitoring of the indoor air/environmental quality in various indoor environments would help us to assess the impact of any proposed interventions and improve our physical and mental health.”

To find out more about the IMechE’s work on air quality and infection resilience, visit our webpages

[1] The Parliamentary and Scientific Committee (P&SC) is an Associate Parliamentary Committee that acts as a liaison between Parliamentarians and scientific bodies, science-based industry and the academic world.

[2] National Engineering Policy Centre. (2022). ‘Infection resilient environments: time for a major upgrade’. 

[3] Laurent, J. G. C., et al. (2021). ‘Associations between acute exposures to PM2.5 and carbon dioxide indoors and cognitive function in office workers: a multicountry longitudinal prospective observational study’, Environmental Research Letters, 16, doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/ac1bd8  

[4] Chief Medical Officer. (2022). ‘Chief Medical Officer’s Annual Report 2022: Air Pollution.

[5] National Engineering Policy Centre. (2021). ‘Infection Resilient Environments: Buildings that keep us healthy and safe: Initial Report.

[6] National Engineering Policy Centre. (2023). ‘Ventilation matters – why clean air is vital to health.


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