It’s time to reduce air pollution from construction

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Any conversation about air pollution must be in the context of how it affects people’s health, and particularly how it disproportionately affects some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.

That means addressing some stark facts:

  • Every year, one in five of all deaths globally can be attributed to air pollution
  • 36,000 of those deaths are in the UK, and approximately 4,000 of
    them in London
  • According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is the single greatest environmental risk to health.

When we breathe polluted air, especially pollutants like fine particulate matter (PM2.5), we inhale it deep into the lungs. From there, those pollutants pass into the bloodstream and travel to organs throughout the body. The pollution causes chronic inflammation and can lead to a range of serious health issues.

In London, for example, construction contributes approximately 30 per cent to particulate matter (PM10). Photograph: iStock

Most of the UK surpasses the WHO’s limits for air pollution. But people in urban areas are particularly exposed to higher levels of poor air quality. The health effects of air pollution are an example of inequality in action. Despite often contributing the least to the problem; children, older people, people with health conditions, Black people and people from other minoritised ethnicities, and people living in areas of deprivation, are all disproportionately affected by air pollution.

Evidence shows that small increases in sustained exposure to PM2.5 substantially increases a person’s risk of dying of cancer and increases the risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Exposure to air pollution is also linked to dementia, diabetes and asthma.

Construction and air pollution

The good news is that the more a place cleans its up its air, the longer, healthier lives people live.

To date, efforts to improve air quality have mostly focused on the biggest source of air pollution: traffic. But construction is a major source of air pollution in cities. In London, for example, construction contributes approximately 30 per cent to particulate matter (PM10).
While major sources of air pollution like transport have decreased polluting emissions due to policies like clean air and ultra-low emissions zones, the construction industry has steadily increased its contribution to emissions.

As Daniel Marsh, programme manager at the Centre for Low Emission Construction (CLEC) and Imperial College London, said: “There has been considerable progress made in reducing emissions in London, particularly from transport and on-road vehicles. However, the construction sector still lags behind and contributes significantly to the pollution that affects the health of workers and residents living close to areas of major development.”

While it didn’t explicitly reference air pollution, UK government research has found that the construction industry has the largest burden of occupational cancers among the industrial sectors.

Ben Pearce: "When we asked the construction industry, 97 per cent said that air quality is an 'extremely or very important environmental health concern'".

Working with industry to improve air quality

The Health effects of air pollution programme at Impact on Urban Health explores and tests solutions to improve air quality. We want to reduce the harmful effects of poor air quality on those most susceptible, including children, older people, people with health conditions, people in minoritised communities, and those living in areas of deprivation.

Over the past 18 months, we partnered with CLEC to explore how to reduce air pollution from the construction sector. CLEC surveyed people working in the industry – including regulators, manufacturers and developers – so we could better understand attitudes towards air pollution and, ultimately, develop practical recommendations to improve air quality. You can read our full report here.

What did we find?

People in the construction industry are concerned about air pollution, health and the environment: 97 per cent said that air quality is an “extremely or very important environmental health concern”.

The industry wants change: The construction industry wants to see a clear and consistent approach to air pollution mitigation. Interventions to improve air quality around construction sites should also align with net zero efforts. 

Long-term, a clear regulatory pathway is needed: While regulations have helped to drive some action, more ambition and clarity is needed to stimulate adoption of clean technologies and working practices, and ultimately to improve health.

But short-term, more can be done: There are practical actions the industry, local authorities and the UK government can take which will improve air quality across the UK now. 

What’s clear is that it’s time for government and local authorities to work with the construction industry to take practical steps to improve air quality. That’s why our joint report contains clear, practical recommendations for reducing pollution from construction.

Our recommendations

There are several recommendations that show how local authorities can work with industry to ensure sites are compliant with existing regulations.

The adoption of new technologies will provide the demand needed to drive supply change. This should be supported by education and training for groups within the construction industry, making them aware of available technology, its impacts and benefits.

Developing a pathway to enhanced regulation: The construction industry is overwhelmingly supportive of reducing air pollution but needs a clear and consistent steer from government to give certainty around what regulations are to come, and to catalyse the kind of action across the industry that is needed to reduce emissions and improve health. 

We have the tools to improve air quality in construction. If we want to protect people from the most serious threats to their health, it’s vital for government and business to act and reduce polluting emissions from construction sites.

Ben Pearce is Portfolio manager — Health effects of air pollution programme at Impact on Urban Health


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