New research network to reduce exposure to air pollution amongst the most vulnerable

air pollution

An interdisciplinary network of researchers and stakeholders has been set up to investigate ways of reducing exposure to air pollution, and improve the health of children and people with underlying health conditions. The group led by Dr Christian Pfrang from the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences is one of six networks created thanks to a grant from UK Research and Innovation.

The Air Pollution Solutions for Vulnerable Groups (CleanAir4V) network focusses on two key vulnerable groups: children and people with pre-existing conditions such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). These two groups are most affected by poor indoor air quality but have often are unable to escape their indoor environments. For these groups, the research network has identified five key indoor/outdoor ‘interfaces’ with potential to improve their air quality experience: nurseries, schools, hospitals, homes and transport hotspots (e.g. semi-enclosed spaces such as Birmingham New Street Station). CleanAir4V’s long-term vision is to develop innovative and cost-effective behaviour and technology interventions to reduce future air pollution exposure and improve health of vulnerable groups and implement these interventions through policy advice, planning, and business innovation. 

Dr Christian Pfrang explains “During the lockdown period, the population across the globe spent substantially more time indoors than before, so these questions need to be answered more urgently now than ever. On average (pre-Covid), the general population stays ca. 90% of time indoors with a trend in the UK towards increasing periods spent inside. Vulnerable groups including children and people with pre-existing medical conditions remain indoors for even longer periods. Yet, the air inside children’s rooms, particularly at disadvantaged homes, can be five times more polluted than outside air. These vulnerable groups are also most susceptible to air pollution. The disproportionate impact on children starts already before birth: maternal exposure to air pollution has been reported to have serious health outcomes in offspring by affecting embryonic phases of development; researchers also reported smaller lung volumes in children associated with air pollution within London's Low Emission Zone. Recent work suggests this indoor air pollution may cause greater harm to children than outside air, because children’s lungs are most susceptible to harmful effects from damp, mould and airborne toxins. COPD is known to be linked to poor air quality: air pollution accounts for 9.7% of COPD hospital admissions - 14k admissions a year.”

The University of Birmingham is well placed to lead this network, as a hub of expertise in air quality and health impacts on vulnerable groups. Project partners span medical, environmental and construction organisations in both the public and private sector. These include for example University Hospitals Birmingham, Public Health England, West Midlands Combined Authority, and international partners are from University of California at Irvine (US), Peking University (China), BAM (Germany), CEAP (China) and the International Natural Coating Society (Singapore).

Other research networks which have received funding through UK Research and Innovation grant include a network led by Suzanne Bartington from Institute of Applied Health Research at the University of Birmingham. The TRANSITION network aims to identify, prioritise and tackle indoor and outdoor air quality challenges linked to the UK low emission mobility revolution, bringing together academics, researchers, policymakers, business, civil society and the wider general public. Additionally, Dr Zongbo Shi from the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences from the University of Birmingham is part of the network run by the University of Edinburgh to investigate the health and equity impacts of climate change mitigation measures on indoor and outdoor air pollution exposure.

To find out more about the air pollution research taking place at the University of Birmingham visit https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/spotlights/air-pollution.aspx