Addressing the hazy landscape of indoor air quality governance

With people in the UK spending 80-90% of the time indoors, indoor air quality (IAQ) is an evident determinant of health and wellbeing. Exposure to indoor air pollutants represents a grave portion of the around 36,000 premature deaths in the UK linked to air pollution each year. 

There are several pollutants that affect indoor environments. Exposure to pollutants like carbon monoxide (CO) is widespread because of the range of common household appliances that produce it. Carbon monoxide exposure causes scores of cases of ill health, long-term complications, and premature mortality. 

There are, however, persistent shortfalls in awareness, policy, and coordinated action across government and stakeholders to address the specific risks of indoor pollutants such as carbon monoxide head on. 

In the face of this fragmented approach to IAQ, Policy Connect and Barry Sheerman MP convened leaders in government, local authorities, and charities in an innovative workshop to discuss issues in the management of IAQ and align on what effective governance of IAQ may look like. 

Current management of indoor air pollution 

Air pollution is a growing public health priority. Local authorities and action groups work with residents across the UK, particularly in urban (and heavily polluted) centres such as London, to promote awareness of air pollutants and mitigative actions. 

Such action is supported by government policy on ambient (outdoor) air, but policymakers have paid little, and only relatively recent, attention to IAQ as a single policy issue. 

There is some government and academic guidance on IAQ, but these are not joined up into a single, statutory guidance document. For many residents and the frontline services responsible for protecting them, participants noted IAQ is left in the dark. 

There is promise in a first-of-its-kind Air Quality Bill in Wales, that would set specific targets to address key indoor air pollutants such as carbon monoxide and raise awareness of their effects. Bridging new evidence with policy will be key to ensure legislation succeeds in reducing the public health burden of CO. 

A new coalition on indoor air quality governance 

Evidence is developing from pockets of research and community projects supported by the workshop participants, but these must be appraised and collated to inform wider practice and new policy. In turn, policy must spur further research to inform IAQ guidance, regulation, and awareness. 

Session chair Barry Sheerman MP and participants put the case forward for a broad IAQ coalition to share evidence and best practice, and to advise on new policy. 

Mirroring the structure of ambient air management, participants highlighted the need for: 

  •  A concerted government strategy on indoor air quality, and supporting statutory provisions; 

  • Designated leadership on IAQ, and designated consideration of IAQ in related policy work;  

  • A synergistic partnership between policy and academia; and  

  • Greater coordination of expertise among policymakers and stakeholders.  

Ensuing action must work in-step with ambient air policy to reflect the intertwinement of the issues. 

Session assessment 

The session used the ‘mosaics for policy’ methodology – the participatory piecing together of representational mosaics – to discuss the functioning of and issues in IAQ management, and recommendations for new IAQ governance. The method was effective in enabling the open, equal sharing of perspectives and best practice examples, and in configuring a coalition of stakeholders to manage and advise on IAQ. This coalition can inform further, specific policies to constitute an indoor air quality strategy. 

Ambient (outdoor) air quality has the research framework, awareness, evidence and understanding, and statutory provisions to underpin the management of pollutants; through the method of participatory discussion, participants aligned that a corresponding structure must replace the limited awareness and lacking resources currently centred around IAQ.