Urgent action is needed to protect outdoor workers from air pollution, campaigners have said, after a study found a London construction worker was exposure to six times the level of pollutants as an office employee.
Research by environmental campaign group Hubbub, King’s College London and The Times asked 10 London residents to wear an air quality monitor for up to a week to track their exposure to black carbon.
Black carbon is a substance strongly correlated with particulate matter, which is known to pose a significant health risk. Participants included a construction worker, an HGV driver, an MP, a school pupil, a college study, a gas safe engineer, a cyclist, a doctor, an office worker and a runner.
Some of the highest readings were recorded by the HGV driver sitting in a cab. But the construction worker was exposed to six times’ the office worker’s readings while working outside.
Office buildings with efficient filter systems had generally good air quality but “leakier” older buildings had higher levels of black carbon, especially when located next to a busy main road.
Commuters also faced significant air quality issues – particularly on the London Underground, as overground trains were found to be 10 times “cleaner” than the deepest Tube lines.
The data recorded by the cyclist highlighted how poor air quality was on major roads. Pollution exposure dropped by 50% when they took backstreets instead of busier commuter routes.
Andrew Grieve, senior air quality analyst at King’s College London, said: “In the Hubbub study, the second highest exposed person after the lorry driver was the construction worker. Outdoor workers have been overlooked in the air quality debate, but this data shows that they are one of the most exposed groups, often spending their working lives near traffic and machinery.”
Matthew Holder, head of campaigns at the British Safety Council, said: “We can see from these results that if you work outdoors, drive or commute in a polluted area, your health is at risk. Meanwhile, employers are burying their heads in the sand and waiting to see if the government and the regulators are going to act. Fortunately, the deadlock is breaking as the science challenges these attitudes and the public demands urgent action.”
He said the issue needs to be tackled now, “otherwise we will look back as we do with asbestos”, and ask “why we failed to prevent harm”.
King’s College London and the British Safety Council have developed a mobile app, called Canairy, that allows workers and their employers to monitor air quality data in real-time. It calculates a user’s hourly exposure to nitrogen dioxide, ozone and particulates and compares exposure to guideline levels set by the World Health Organization. It is hoped the app will inform organisations’ risk assessments and enable them to schedule work to reduce long-term exposure.