12 October 2022
Air pollution, the Environment Act and the construction industry

Air pollution, the Environment Act and the construction industry –what happens now?

According to the government, air pollution represents the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK, with an estimated 28,000 to 36,000 deaths attributed to it every year. Air pollution can both cause chronic conditions (such as cardiovascular and respiratory disease, as well aslung cancer) and exacerbate existing conditions, particularly among vulnerable populations.

Air pollution comes from a wide range of different sources, with the most prolific source being diesel and petrol vehicles. Other sources include cigarette smoke, the fuel that is used to power our homes, industry and farming.

Government’s Environment Act cracks down on air pollution

The Environment Act 2021created a legally binding duty for the government to introduce at least two new air quality targets for the UK by 31 October 2022. It is understood that two main targets have so far been proposed, both of which focus on PM2.5 levels. PM2.5 refers to fine particulate matter, widely considered to be one of the most health-damaging air pollutants in the UK atmosphere.

  • An Annual Mean Concentration Target, which will aim to reduce the concentration of PM2.5to a maximum of 10μg/m3across England by 2040.
  • A Population Exposure Reduction Target, which will aim to reduce the population’s exposure to air pollution by 35% compared to 2018 levels, again by 2040.

This is a significant reduction to what is required by current legislation; the Air Quality Standards Regulations 2010 currently limit the annual average level of PM2.5 to 20μg/m

What does construction have to do with it?

In early 2022, The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) published statistics showing that the manufacturing and construction industries were responsible for a staggering 27% of PM2.5 emissions in the UK. If we’re to meet the government’s strict new targets, the construction industry will clearly have a significant role to play.

So, what can be done on-site to contribute to these stricter new air pollution targets?

1. Air pollution monitoring

All major construction sites should be using air pollution monitoring machines to keep tabs on the amount of dust and fine particulate matter they are producing on site. If the monitor records a spike in air pollution, this enables site managers to immediately identify where the spike is coming from and to swiftly put remedial actions in place to mitigate it.

2. Using water to prevent dust from spreading

Certain construction activities, such as breaking down concrete, filling skipsor clearing land for development, for example, generate a particularly large amount of dust, which can potentially be controlled using fine water sprays and sprinklers.

3. What does construction have to do with it?

On-tool extraction systems are local exhaust ventilation (LEV) systems that can be fitted directly onto tools that might otherwise generate a lot of dust and pollution, for example sanders, saws, grinders, polishers and breakers. The system extracts the dust and places it in a waste bag, which can then be disposed of safely.

4. Replacing vehicles and machinery with hybrid or electric alternatives

Diesel vehicles and machinery such as stone crushers, bulldozers and excavators emit large quantities of harmful PM2.5. This can be controlled with devices called diesel particulate filters (also known as soot traps), which capture and store some of the harmful particulate matter to reduce dangerous emissions. However, with the government looking to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030, many construction sites are now investing in hybrid technology in order to get ahead of the curve and do their bit in reducing air pollution on site.

5. Ensuring workers have access to high-quality

PPE Taking these steps to control air pollution will have a significant effect in reducing the amount of dust and other toxic matter produced on construction sites, but it can’t always be eliminated entirely. With fine particulate matter a known causative factor for several life-threatening illnesses, employers have a duty to ensure their workers are properly protected. In particular, respiratory protective equipment (RPE) can ensure workers are as safe as possible when working in environments where dust and air pollution is most likely to be produced.