The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 3.8 million people die from indoor air pollution every year. In America, air pollution is linked to 30,000 premature deaths, serious health concerns and reduced life expectancy. As our understanding of the role the built environment plays in health and wellness continues to grow, air quality is a top concern. And with an increased focus on indoor air quality because of the pandemic, it begs the question–what could come of greater awareness and demand? And could new indoor air quality regulations be on the way?
The Campaign for Ella’s Law
Discussions about possible IAQ regulations were revitalized by the tragic death of a young girl in London. In late 2020, a U.K. coroner ruled that air pollution was a significant cause of her death. His decision resulted in the first recognition of air pollution as a cause of death on a death certificate.
Who Was Ella Kissi-Debrah?
Ella Kissi-Debrah was a 9-year-old girl from London who passed away in 2013. At the time, her cause of death was listed as acute respiratory failure due to severe asthma. Years later in December 2020, a coroner ruled exposure to excessive air pollution as a contributing factor in her death. The coroner specifically cited London’s excess levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter as well as inaction by government authorities to reduce air pollution levels. Those pollution levels exceeded England, the European Union and the World Health Organization’s recognized legal limits.
Ella is the first person in the United Kingdom, and likely in the world, to have air pollution listed as a cause of death. Her tragic case is in many ways a watershed moment for air quality and pollution regulations.
In the years after Ella’s death, her mother Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, campaigned for her daughter’s death certificate to include air pollution exposure. Rosamund wanted the certificate to fully reflect the consequences that poor air quality had on Ella’s life.
While London is widely recognized as a city that struggles with high pollution levels and toxic emissions, Ella’s exposure was particularly bad. She lived on a major road in Lewisham, south of London. It was also the road she walked along daily to get to school. A U.K. professor argued that this level of consistent exposure to toxic car exhaust contributed to Ella’s severe asthma.
A New Clean Air Act
The 2020 ruling drew a direct connection between Ella’s death and the U.K. government’s failure to act and failure to regulate air pollution. Experts believe her case set a precedent for future air pollution deaths in the U.K. And, it could potentially influence similar decisions in other countries. Ella’s story and the recent ruling have drawn support for a new clean air act in the U.K called Ella’s Law. The law would either amend outdated air quality legislation or replace current air laws. Updated legislation would include an indoor air quality focus.
Growing Focus on Air Pollution and Health
Air pollution and air quality concerns are complex global issues with serious consequences. They are also a timely focal point due to the pandemic. But what would a greater focus on the relationship between air pollution, air quality and health look like in the form of legislation? It’s difficult to assume. Indoor air pollution and indoor air quality rules and regulations differ across the globe. Some countries focus legislation solely on outdoor air pollution while others hone in on specific pollutants.
While the proposed Ella’s Law would only apply in the U.K., the risks of poor air quality impact everyone. If one country takes serious action to regulate air pollution and/or indoor air quality, it could result in other governments following suit. The potential upcoming legal actions or societal advocacy for indoor air quality regulations would have huge HVAC and IAQ industry ramifications.
History of Air Quality Standards in America
The first federal air quality legislation was the 1955 Pollution Control Act. This initial act was expanded several times throughout the 1960s, and would eventually become the Clean Air Act of 1970. With amendments passed in 1977 and 1990, this is the Act as we know it today. 2020 marked the Clean Air Act’s 50th anniversary, which is largely viewed as an environmental law success.
The Act authorized the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set national ambient air quality standards for six criteria air pollutants and regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants. These standards apply to stationary sources (factories, chemical plants, etc.) and mobile sources (vehicles, generators, lawn equipment, engines. etc.). The Clean Air Act also established state implementation plans which place enforcement responsibilities primarily on state government. Despite the many successes of the Clean Air Act, indoor air quality was pretty much left behind.
Who Regulates Indoor Air Quality?
To attempt to predict what updated indoor air quality regulations in America could look like, we first need to understand current regulations. Or, in reality, understand that there are no all-encompassing indoor air quality regulations or indoor pollution standards. This shortfall primarily lies in the absence of one overarching organization with the authority to set and implement such standards. Instead, there are several federal agencies with various degrees of authority over indoor air quality, indoor pollution and sources. There are also several non-governmental organizations and agencies that provide IAQ guidance and recommendations. The result? Indoor air quality continues to go largely unregulated.
The list of official agencies that have some say or regulation is seemingly never-ending. An organization might have authority for a specific aspect of indoor air, but their jurisdiction ends there. It’s as if every possible environmental and public safety agency in America has one foot in the door. Here are just some of the many organizations that cover a portion of IAQ standards:
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Regulates toxic substances and hazardous chemicals such as radon, lead and other outdoor pollutants, which can turn into indoor air quality concerns.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA): Provides ventilation standards for workplaces and indoor air quality regulations for employment settings.
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): Regulates certain indoor air pollutants in federal buildings.
This patchwork of indoor air quality regulations and non-uniformed standards is not a new issue. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) summarized the problem in a report that dates back to 1980. “No one federal agency has responsibility for the problem. Until responsibility is assigned to one agency to oversee federal efforts, they will continue to be ineffectual.” Despite awareness a severe lack of oversight and primary authority was a problem, not much has changed since.
In addition to the organizations listed, various other federal agencies also have bits and pieces of regulation power. And that’s only at a federal level. State and local programs as well as tribes can set stricter regional rules. Even though these organizations offer resources and recommendations–they are not formal regulations. And without implementation, they are simply suggestions.
What Could New Indoor Air Quality Standards Look Like?
There is a direct relationship between human health and air quality. Public understanding of that relationship has been increasing for years, as the research and data rose. It is also currently in the public’s eye more than ever before because of COVID-19. Currently, many different groups, professions and concerned individuals are calling for greater indoor air quality regulations.
Indoor air quality standards could include a plethora of options, such as:
- Routine indoor air quality testing
- Maximum indoor pollutant levels (particulate matter, ozone, radon, etc.)
- Ventilation standards
- Regulating gas appliances
- Rules for design and construction phases + regulations of building materials
- Setting test standards for indoor air quality products
- Regulating chemicals used in common household products, furniture, materials, etc.
- Designating clean air facilities in the case of wildfires or extreme outdoor air issues
- Mold exposure limits
What Would IAQ Regulations Mean for the HVAC Industry?
The obvious common thread between IAQ and HVAC is air. Air makes up our surrounding environment, indoors and out. But it’s the IAQ and HVAC industries that people turn to for control over their indoor spaces. What does this mean with regard to IAQ regulations? Demand.
Increased demand from homeowners, building managers, renters–pretty much everyone. Greater awareness of indoor air quality’s importance and impact in our lives combined with official regulations equals demand from everyone. That includes the everyday people who will take more of an interest in how to improve the air quality in their home or living space. It also includes demand an institutional level (i.e. buildings, schools, offices, etc.) as public indoor spaces will have to make the necessary changes and adjustments to accommodate official regulations. It also means both immediate upgrades and ongoing regular maintenance to continuously reach the standards.
Beyond demand, who knows what else could come from indoor air quality regulations? Perhaps more direct funding, like we’ve seen during the pandemic. Maybe it’ll cause greater industry collaboration. More research which results in better products and solutions. It certainly would increase the number of available jobs and revenue. In the end, whatever it might look like, the HVAC industry would only stand to benefit from indoor air quality regulations.
The Future of IAQ
Whether widespread indoor air quality regulations or potential Clean Air Act amendments are looming or not–the industry direction is already shifting. The pandemic only added momentum to a change already taking place. HVAC and IAQ contractors, professionals, companies and experts are all in demand from a health and wellness perspective. Experience in indoor air quality today means helping create healthier buildings, homes and clean air indoor spaces.