by | October 26, 2022 | Opinion

‘Take a deep breath on indoor air quality’ at the European Health Forum Gastein

Estimates say we spend about 90% of our time indoors. In doing so, we are faced with an invisible yet pervasive threat: indoor air pollution. On Thursday 29 September, EPHA organised a session at the European Health Forum Gastein focusing on this issue that affects all of us at almost all times: Take a deep breath on indoor air quality – what role for the EU? 

We were delighted to be able to host a truly interdisciplinary session, where the panelists shared their insights as researchers, advocates, policymakers or practitioners, working in the health, buildings or energy sector.  

Professor Steffen Loft (University of Copenhagen) provided a solid grounding for the conversation, offering an overview of the evidence base. He noted that over 2 million DALYs (disability-adjusted life years) are lost in the EU-28 due to poor indoor air quality and its effects, which include but are not limited to cardiovascular diseases, lung cancers, asthma, respiratory tract infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and acute intoxication.  

Susanna Palkonen (European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients’ Associations) brought in a perspective from patients with respiratory conditions, who have earlier and worse reactions when exposed to poor indoor air quality. Their ability to make individual-level changes, especially when they are renters, is often limited. This underscores the need for structural societal change and policy support.  

Stefan Moser (DG ENERGY) pointed to a number of legislative files currently under discussion at the EU level, which focus on energy efficiency but can also have a positive impact on indoor air quality. These include Ecodesign regulations for products such as cooking appliances, and the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, which is set to introduce indoor environmental quality standards. He highlighted the potential health and climate co-benefits from such measures, while cautioning that Member States’ responsibility and buy-in are essential on all these matters.  

Michael Scholand (CLASP) focused on gas stoves as a case study to illustrate how and why health considerations need to be included in all sectoral policies. He raised the alarm on over 40 years of research linking respiratory health risks to indoor gas stove pollution, with children being most at risk, given their faster breathing rates, increased physical activity, smaller lung-to-body ratios, and developing respiratory and immune systems. Michael called on the health community to engage with the Commission on phasing out gas cooking in the context of the upcoming Ecodesign revision. 

Doctor Nadia Boschi (Lendlease; International Society of Indoor Air Quality and Climate) referred to the current shift in the percentages of time spent indoors: life with – and potentially after – the COVID-19 pandemic means some of the time that used to be spent at the office and in public spaces becomes time spent at home, which further increases the importance of good air quality in the residential sector. She also highlighted the need to shift away from gas and towards renewable energy in buildings, and the value of reliable and accessible information available to consumers when making acquisitions and choices that impact their health. 

Doctor Milka Sokolović delivered the closing remarks, reflecting on the multiple implications that indoor air quality has for health equity. She referred to vulnerable groups – patients and children, who are likely to be more affected by this issue, and lower socio-economic groups, who are likely to be exposed to higher levels of pollution, while also drawing attention to inequalities among EU member states, with more premature deaths being attributable to indoor air pollution as we move Eastwards on the map.  

Given the revelations of the pandemic about air flow and circulation, and the effort to reimagine the built environment as part of the green transition, the time is now to address indoor air quality in a more comprehensive manner at the EU level. With such a breadth and depth of expertise on the panel, the policy paths we explored were numerous and included revising building codes, establishing an Indoor Air Quality certificate, mandating clear ventilation requirements for all buildings, labeling building materials or strictly regulating sources of indoor air pollution such as cooking appliances.  

We value this conversation at the Gastein Forum as a crucial step towards making indoor air quality a priority on the political agenda, in recognition of it being such a key health issue where much work remains to be done. 

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