• Lee Calver
  • 25 November 2014

Air pollution: a worldwide issue that organisations must look to tackle

Air pollution is a worldwide problem, with the World Health Organization (WHO) revealing earlier this year that seven million people died as a result of air pollution in 2012, making it the world’s largest single environmental health risk.

On releasing the figures in March, WHO stated that the findings more than doubled the previous estimates and that reducing air pollution must become a priority as it could save millions of lives.

Outdoor air pollution was linked to approximately 3.7 million deaths in 2012 with 80% of those deaths as a result of strokes and heart disease, while WHO estimates indoor air pollution was connected to 4.3 million deaths in 2012 in households cooking over coal, wood and biomass stoves.

Regionally, the most air pollution-related deaths occurred in South-East Asia and the WHO's Western Pacific region, with a total of 3.3 million deaths linked to indoor air pollution and 2.6 million deaths related to outdoor air pollution.

How great are the risks?

Dr Maria Neira, Director of WHO’s Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, commented:

“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes.

“Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.”

Is the UK pulling its weight?

While WHO figures specifically mention deaths related to air pollution in South-East Asia, does that mean everything is acceptable in Europe, and in particular, the UK?

Well, last week, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled against the UK Government over its failures to comply with EU air pollution legal limits, following a case brought by environmental NGO Client Earth, which underlines the fact the UK is certainly not doing enough.

The Government will now be forced to urgently clean up illegal air pollution in British cities following the ruling, which will undoubtedly see a number of diesel cars and heavy goods vehicles restricted from city centres within a few years.

Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Joan Walley MP, welcomed the verdict:

"Parliament's green watchdog has been warning the Government for the last four years that it must tackle the public health crisis being caused by heavy traffic in our towns and cities.

"Instead of taking action to save lives and protect people living or working near busy roads, however, Ministers have complacently carried on with business as usual and put off serious efforts to deal with the problem for another decade."

She added:

"It is not acceptable for Ministers who live in leafy suburbs to tell people living next to busy roads in towns and cities that they have to wait until 2030 to breathe clean air. Children's development and people's lives are at risk right now; we need urgent action to get the most polluting vehicles off our streets and get more people walking, cycling and taking public transport.

"The ruling from the European Court is a welcome intervention, because it will force the Government to prioritise the issue of air quality in all decisions on transport policy and infrastructure."

The Government recently admitted that under its current plans, London, Leeds and Birmingham will not meet legal limits for the toxic nitrogen dioxide gas (NO2) until after 2030, which is 20 years after the original deadline set by Europe.

However, national courts in Europe will now be able to order Governments to produce plans which achieve NO2 limits in a period of time as “short as possible”. It has been reported that the UK Supreme Court is expected to interpret what the time frame should be next year.

Alan Andrews, Lawyer with Client Earth which brought the case, stated:

“Thousands of people die because of air pollution in Britain every year. This ruling will save lives by forcing the Government to finally take this issue seriously. They will now have to come up with an urgent plan to rid our towns and cities of cancer-causing diesel fumes.

“This sets a groundbreaking legal precedent in EU law and paves the way for a series of legal challenges across Europe.”

Cities in Europe still suffering

In addition to the landmark ruling last week, the European Environment Agency (EEA) published a new report stating that air pollution in Europe comes with a high price tag.

The report said that while policies have improved air quality overall, air pollution is still the main environmental health hazard, resulting in high costs for health care systems, unhealthy workers and an estimated 400,000 premature deaths in Europe in 2011.

Its annual air quality report collates data from official monitoring stations across Europe; showing that almost all city residents are exposed to pollutants at levels deemed unsafe by the World Health Organization. For some pollutants, more than 95% of the urban population is exposed to unsafe levels, it added.

As well as publishing this new report, the EEA released data showing pollution levels in 400 cities across Europe. The data suggests that while many large cities have relatively low levels of pollution, others have pollutions levels above EU limits for a significant part of the year.

EEA Executive Director, Hans Bruyninckx, said:

"Air pollution is still high in Europe. It leads to high costs: for our natural systems, our economy, the productivity of Europe’s workforce, and most seriously, the general health of Europeans."

While this data was released last week, the EEA has also today published an assessment stating that air pollution from Europe’s largest industrial facilities cost society at least €59bn and possibly as much as €189bn in 2012.

The findings come from ‘Costs of air pollution from European industrial facilities – an updated assessment’, which evaluates a number of harmful impacts caused by air pollution including premature death, hospital costs, lost work days, health problems, damage to buildings and reduced agricultural yields.

Furthermore, the report names the most damaging facilities in Europe and the costs in each country. Of the 30 individual facilities identified as causing the highest damage, 26 are power-generating facilities, mainly fuelled by coal and lignite and located predominantly in Germany and Eastern Europe. The report does not assess whether a facility's emissions are consistent with its legal requirements to operate.

Hans Bruyninckx commented:

"While we all benefit from industry and power generation, this analysis shows that the technologies used by these plants impose hidden costs on our health and the environment. Industry is also only part of the picture – it is important to recognise that other sectors, primarily transport and agriculture, also contribute to poor air quality."

What can we do?

The figures should be startling enough to make people all around the world comprehend the importance of making changes to reduce air pollution. While Government’s obviously have a huge role to play, companies and individuals must realise their responsibilities.

Rethinking methods of travel is one way businesses can help to reduce air pollution.

Of course it is not feasible for everyone to give up their cars, but could your employees car-share to get to and from work? Do you offer incentives for members of staff to take other methods of travel, such as cycling and walking where possible?  

A workforce that regularly cycles to work will be fitter and healthier, both physically and mentally. Research suggests that as a result, cyclists can be relied on to be more alert and productive than their less active counterparts. In the USA, workplace physical activity programmes have been shown to reduce short-term sick leave by between 6 and 32%. Other research suggests that cyclists live, on average, two years longer than non-cyclists and take 15% fewer days off work through illness.

In addition to increased productivity, from a business point of view, there could well be other benefits to be gained from encouraging cycling to work. Reductions in off-site parking could bring down overheads and reductions in on-site parking can free up space for more profitable uses.

Reducing emissions from your building is another way of helping to reduce air pollution, but improving the energy management of a building is a tough job for a Facilities Manager. As well as making changes to the building, FMs also have the task of ensuring behavioural change and engagement issues resulting from day to day building usage.

The problem of air pollution affects everyone and should not be an issue only for Governments to tackle. Organisations across the globe must do their bit. International Workplace helps organisations achieve world-class levels of compliance and performance, to a consistent standard across their international operations. We’re experts in sustainability and the environment as well as facilities management. If you wish to find out how we can help your organisation in this area, please get in touch by calling us on 0871 777 8881.