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19th Aug 2019

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Indoor air quality on EU building agenda for first time

  • Data from Danish window and rooflight manufacturer, Velux, suggests people living in damp or mouldy homes were 40 percent more likely to suffer from asthma. (Photo: bartb_pt)

MEPs will debate amendments to new EU building regulations next week (11 October), which could see indoor air quality become a mandatory criteria for the first time - a boon for workers and residents.

The plans come as part of a larger rethink on future building standards in the wake of the Paris Agreement on climate change, and are intended as part of improving the overall energy performance of the built environment.

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And they come after several pieces of recent research showing the potential health and economic costs to EU citizens of poorly-ventilated or damp homes and workplaces.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned in a report this month that healthier homes and workplaces could prevent around 1 million deaths, globally, a year, and explicitly singled out indoor air quality as a factor.

The WHO said "globally, 29 percent of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) deaths are attributable to household air pollution, 8 percent ambient and 11 percent in workplaces."

Data from Danish window and rooflight manufacturer Velux, in their Health Homes Barometer report, also suggests people living in damp or mouldy homes were 40 percent more likely to suffer from asthma.

And according to current healthcare spending reports by Fraunhofer, a German research organisation, it costs the EU €82 billion euros annually to treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma.

Crunch time at Parliament committee

Under the microscope next week in the European Parliament are amendments to the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD). A series of proposed amendments to the EPBD will be going before the committee on industry, research, and energy (ITRE) on 11 October.

The proposed policy changes are intended to ensure all EU citizens will have access to the best indoor air quality and seeks to set high minimum standards at the member state level, along with ambitious renovation strategies.

"My main point is to ensure our buildings are helping to keep us healthy", says Anneli Jaatteenmaki, a Finnish MEP, former prime minister and member of the environment committee.

With most people spending some 90 percent of their time indoors, the stakes could hardly be higher - both for tenants, home owners, office workers, and the construction and renovation sectors.

"Energy efficiency and indoor air quality must go hand in hand. The consequences poor indoor air quality has on Europeans' health and quality of life, as well as on our economies, cannot be underestimated," according to Roberta Savli, director of strategy and policy at the European Federation of Allergies and Airways Diseases Patients' Associations (EFA).

"Europeans have the right to breathe clean and safe air everywhere," she said and adds, "the European Parliament has the opportunity to introduce an indoor air quality certificate to protect us."

Interchanging air

But potential conflicts between the energy efficiency measures and proposed indoor air quality standards are already becoming apparent. Attempts to increase the energy efficiency of buildings generally mean "we are not opening windows; we are interchanging incoming and outgoing air" according to Jaromir Kohlicek, a Czech MEP and vice-chair of the ITRE committee.

Whilst not necessarily disagreeing, the construction industry is keen to point to the problem with maintaining and repairing existing air systems in the current building stock.

Eugenio Quintieri, secretary general of the European Builders Confederation (EBC) stresses "we need a European legislative framework able to ensure heating and air-conditioning systems are not only functioning safely, but remain in good repair, because they have a huge influence on indoor air quality".

The general feeling towards the legislation amongst special interest groups and politicians is positive.

Adrian Joyce, secretary general of the European Alliance of Companies for Energy Efficiency in Buildings (EuroACE), admits that to "live up to the Paris Accords we have to change."

He points out that buildings consume 40 percent of all energy and produce 36 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and 70 percent of all buildings were constructed before there were energy regulations.

The amendments must set a "strong vision for the building stock for 2050", but he highlighted the "need to strengthen renovation strategies at the member state level".

Achieving the balance between a high level legislative framework and member state commitment for ambitious renovation strategies and action plans will be essential to see significant progress on the issue.

The amendments sets a framework that, "defines responsibilities and allows member states to create their path to the overall 2050 goal," according to EuroACE, "this is positive for the member states". "If these amendments are adopted it means we will see much lower energy demand and much lower carbon dioxide emissions from buildings by 2050."

"What we hope to establish is good practice concepts", Kohlicek states, for renovating and preserving the current building stock and for new builds.

Heat or eat

Affordability will continue to be an issue. Financial support packages at the EU and member state level must be encouraged, according to Jaatteenmaki.

Kohlicek said that the intent of the changes, with respect to energy poverty and health outcomes, were such that "the declaration is quite clear, we must help the impoverished".

"When you are living in better homes the heating costs are lower," Kohlicek said.

Properly renovated and insulated buildings lose less heat and use less energy overall, meaning fewer decisions about 'whether to heat or eat'. "We hope with these directives, we can push the entrepreneurs who own these buildings to fix the issues," he comments.

Velux, the major Danish window and rooflight manufacturer, has pointed out that individuals living in more affluent European countries are able to afford staged projects over several years whereas those living in the central Eastern European region are in the opposite situation. Twice as many people experience poor health when they are not able to adequately heat their homes, according to Velux.

"Policy with a long view"

But Kohlicek offers a word of caution, stating "the direct impact of indoor air quality will not be readily apparent". It could take as long as ten years to see a statistical change, he warns, as these directives are for new buildings and future renovations. "This is a policy with a long view".

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