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How does energy efficiency in UK homes affect indoor air pollution and what impact does lockdown have on this?

We are currently in a global crisis as the COVID19 pandemic sweeps the globe and cases increase daily. As a result, our way of life has almost come to a complete halt as governments enforce mass social distancing. Society is being confined to their homes for lengthy periods of time, in the UK this is applied to a population of nearly 68 million people. The Office of National Statics has calculated that there’s a total of 27.9 million households in the UK, which account for 14% of greenhouse gas emissions through energy use. 

However, in recent months the UK’s energy demand has seen a significant disruption due to the measures put in place by the government. Disruption is particularly prominent in the demand side for transport, industry and services. The demand for petrol, diesel and aviation fuel is plunging and if the population’s movement is continually restricted, transport will see a reduction greater than 40%. This declining trend is mirrored in the industrial and business sectors. Electricity demand for last month was the lowest it’s been since 1975 and this month it’s likely to be even lower. 

In the domestic sector, we are not seeing the same trends of continual decline. However,  energy demand is still disrupted. Studies have seen that demand has been altered as household routines change; the morning electricity “peaks” are flattening out, as the use of electrical showers, kettles, lights and heating are spread over a slightly longer period. Due to an influx of the UK population self-isolating in their homes, it is likely that there will be an increase in energy demand. 

The UK has a diverse building stock, but only 30% of the housing stock is in the highest SAP energy efficiency rating (EER) bands, A to C. Meaning more energy is required to perform everyday actions such as heating or lighting, therefore incurring increased greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. However, the highest EER bands have improved from 2% in 1996 to 30% in 2016 and continue to improve as people deploy easy measures themselves. Two common energy efficiency measures are envelope tightening and the addition of thermal insulation. Whilst installing these measures improves outdoor air quality, this isn’t the case for Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). 

Air pollution affects both outdoor and indoor environments, however, IAQ is often forgotten about. We spend 90% of our time indoors, now with the UK lockdown one can only imagine this is near 100%. IAQ can be considerably impacted by energy efficiency. Whilst airtight and energy efficient buildings are mostly exempt from outdoor pollutants, an adverse outcome is the build up of indoor pollutants. By sealing buildings, concentrations of pollutants increase and often sealants are sources of pollutants. Unless they’re carefully managed the accumulation of pollutants and change in thermal comfort conditions can have serious implications to people’s health. Exposure to pollutants can lead to a wide range of health impacts from eye problems to respiratory illnesses and even cancer. Studies have found statistically significant increases in allergy or asthma symptoms in homes with less ventilation and dwellings with a higher energy efficiency rating. In addition, after adding thermal insulation and also replacing the heating systems with an energy efficient heating system, 79% of  low income dwellings reported warmer conditions. Poor thermal comfort can contribute to Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) symptoms, which include headaches, itchy skin, dry or sore eyes, blocked or runny noses and rashes. Furthermore, as people are adapting to working from home, warmer conditions can affect productivity as for every degree above 25°C productivity is seen to decline by 2%. Nonetheless, there are simple and effective ways to reduce the buildup of pollutants and ventilate homes. A few easy steps include: opening windows and doors to allow natural ventilation, use of dehumidifiers and air purifiers, dusting surfaces and vacuuming frequently and minimising the use of scented candles and air fresheners. 

There’s no doubt that this pandemic is creating unimaginable devastation and hardship for many, however, isolating at home and only leaving for essential reasons is currently the best way in which countries can attempt to curb the spread of the virus. Consequently this will have an effect on indoor air pollution. In the UK, indoor air pollution can differ between households due to levels of energy efficiency. As people spend increasingly long periods of time confined inside it’s important to be aware of pollutant levels and their implications.