It’s in the blood: air pollution in construction and the urban environment

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As you are probably aware, air quality in urban environments has been on a steady decline the past few decades. In the worlds biggest cities, London being one of these, it has been found that it severely impact human health. In London alone, there are 9600 premature deaths as a result of poor air quality. The trouble is, it is really difficult to appreciate the danger of air pollution because it is so intangible and the health effects have quite a long lag time. One of the most dangerous pollutants in the air is one that you will never see coming, literally. It’s called PM2.5.

PM2.5 refers to Particulate Matter (PM) that is less than 2.5 micrometres aka microns (µm), ie 1/400th of a millimetre or 3% the diameter of a human hair. Often PM2.5 is colloquially grouped as “Fine Particulates”. PM2.5 is omnipresent in the urban environment and extremely bad for human health. It is one of the biggest culprits in the air quality related health epidemic.

Why is it everywhere?

There are a range of direct sources emitting PM2.5 directly into our atmosphere, the most significant in urban environments are things burning fossil fuels. Vehicles in transportation are the most significant and obvious, but there are a range of other sources including gas boilers and wood burners. Friction such as tyre wear and dust producing activities such as construction works also contribute PM2.5. Finally, chemical reactions between other pollutants can produce PM2.5 as secondary particles. For example sulphur dioxide reacting with oxygen and water to produce sulphuric acid, which is another instance of PM2.5.

It’s not just the range of sources, it is that fact that it is a very fine particulate. It stays in the air for much longer than larger compounds. In low lying cities, on days with a high rate of fuel being burnt, we can detect scary levels of PM2.5 in the air.

What is PM2.5 doing to my body?

Perhaps the severity of PM2.5 is best communicated by the World Health Organisation’s Air Quality Guidelines that state there is simply no safe level of PM2.5 where adverse effects would not be anticipated. The fine nature of this particulate matter enables it to enter your body with ease, travelling easily through your nose and throat, deep into your lungs and into your circulatory system.

Exposure to air pollution creates long-term health issues and is therefore hard to directly link specific pollutants to specific health conditions, yet multiple studies have found a clear correlation between exposure to PM2.5 and increased mortality risk, especially for cardiovascular causes. In short, think asthma, bronchitis, and a range of heart conditions including heart attacks. To make things worse, those with pre-dispositions appear to be disproportionately vulnerable.

How to manage PM2.5 on construction sites

Our area of expertise lies in managing air pollutions related to construction. As previously stated, there are many other sources that are prominent in producing PM2.5, but for this article, we will focus on construction sites.

The first emphasis has to be on actively monitoring the pollutant levels around site. There are a range of monitors available on the market. At Qflow we are able to aggregate and harmonise the data collected from these monitors across multiple projects and suppliers to help give teams a more manageable view of the air quality on their projects.

The second emphasis has to be on taking proactive action on fuel burning activities. The sheer energy consumption of construction and demolition activities seems to justify the use of diesel fuel generators and plant that is simply not held to same levels as on-road vehicles. Target these fuel burning sources and innovate: there is a whole range of new tech hitting the market from solar powered lighting, to electric vehicles and hybrid generators.

The final emphasis is keep abreast of the 4th industrial revolution. It’s no longer just about digital tools and software: Artificial Intelligence technologies and Data Science techniques will revolutionise all industries. The dangers of PM2.5 presented in this article is one of the underlying reasons why Qflow is pursuing an innovative solution to manage and reduce air pollution in construction. We can’t sustain these levels of air pollution in our urban environments and if something isn’t done to tackle it, we will be facing a massive health risk affecting the majority of the population who live in dense urban environments.

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James Farrell

James Farrell

James is the Product Owner at Qualis Flow. With an academic background in physical geography and vast experience in environmentally focused organisations as well as SaaS businesses, James is motivated by creating innovative products that drive a sustainable world.

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