Meet the Experts:
Dr Richard Maggs
Nov. 25 2019
In the latest ‘Meet the Experts’ interview, we speak to Dr Richard Maggs, consulting group manager at Bureau Veritas, about the importance – and the challenges – of maintaining good air quality.
I always had an interest in environment when growing up and fortunate as a child that I lived in a small village where access to the countryside was freely available.
The natural world fascinated me in respect of how it worked and what linked with what. This fascination led me to study Applied Plant Biology at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth in the 1980s before I took my first research assistant job at the University of Reading, working on plant pathogen control and the aetiology of potato blight.
Whilst the work introduced me to active research it was not where the holistic view of my interest lay so I was fortunate in being introduced to Prof Nigel Bell at Imperial College, who led the Pollution Impacts Group there. He was after a new research technician to support the team of researchers and I got the job.
After a major assignment in Pakistan and a period working as a freelance scientist, I was elated to complete my PhD in 1996. I returned to Imperial College full time, working in the Pollution Impacts Group as a research associate (a Post-Doctoral position), where I worked on a number of investigations relating to air pollution covering health impacts, personal exposure and the setting of critical loads of pollutants for sensitive ecosystems. I moved into a private consultancy role in 1998.
My research career had been both enjoyable and challenging, allowing me to participate in some truly innovative and varied projects, and I’ve been able to build upon these foundations as I became embedded in the (then) newly adopted Local Air Quality Management regime and EU Directives on air quality.
I continue to be involved in, and project manager for, notable UK-wide projects. I have presented at public inquiries and litigation cases and as Consulting Group Manager I head up both the air quality and noise & vibration teams at Bureau Veritas. On top of this, I contribute to national and local policy through scientific evidence for Government, technical know-how for local councils and as an active member of a number of industry panels and groups.
Air quality is essentially what the phrase states – it is the quality of the air we breathe. Commonly otherwise referred to as ‘air pollution’, the concept of contaminants being present in the air that have adverse effect on our health is nothing new. John Evelyn’s “Fumifugium” was published in 1661 and the foul stenches and odour of Dickensian London and the smog in London of the 1950s are all points of reference that most of us would have heard of.
The Clean Air Act of 1956 and subsequent legislation on Environmental Protection has given rise to huge improvements in air quality in recent decades. However, as our understanding of air pollution increases so does our knowledge of what other pollutants arise that may affect our health, or that of our environment. The pollution in the UK is perhaps not as visible as it once was, but health studies and evidence acquired through monitoring of ‘the invisible killer’ continues to show the significant challenges with the quality of the air we breathe in the 21st century.
In the UK, the Committee of Medical Effects of Air Pollution (COMEAP) provides recommendations to Government in respect of the setting, or adoption of air quality standards. COMEAP bases its recommendation on the scientific body of evidence which is published through peer reviewed studies and give rise to consideration on two key aspects of air pollution impacts:
Linking the cause and effects of air pollution and our health is, for most people, through the lens of respiratory illnesses. However, the understanding of this has gained huge insights into a wide range of effects. In 2017 the Royal College of Physicians showed evidence from a wide range of scientific studies linking air pollution to a range of health outcomes, which vary according to the key stages of development of the human life-cycle.
For example, in the womb air pollution is linked with lower birth weights of babies. In toddlers, development problems are increased due to air pollution with increased rates of wheezing and coughing. Slower development lung function is observed in children, alongside asthma and the onset of Atherosclerosis (a hardening of the artery walls), whilst in adults a wide range of symptoms including heart attacks, the acceleration of lung function decline, Type 2 diabetes, asthma and lung cancers are now all linked to air pollution. For the elderly, poor cognition and heart failure and strokes are additionally added at higher levels of probability to those that are already shown to occur as illnesses in adults.
With this evidence in mind it is perhaps not surprising that air pollution is occasional referred to in the context of a public health crisis.
Improvements in air quality have been made in recent decades. Challenges however persist.
The recently published 2019 Clean Air Strategy for the UK seeks to further improve air quality in the UK through a targeted sectoral approach to emissions reductions for a wide range of pollutants to achieve targets set under the National Emissions Ceiling Directive (NECD) (2016/2284/EU). The basis of the NECD is to achieve reductions in the annual emissions total across the UK for a suite of specific pollutants. In achieving these targets at both individual Member State level and across the European Union, it is anticipated that significant improvements in the quality of the air we breathe will arise.
The challenge for UK Government is that key sectors for reducing emissions of some of the specific pollutants have already been targeted and achieved the necessary contribution to emissions reductions that can be achieved by the sectors, without ultimately compromising the economic standing of efficacy of the sector.
For example, the power generation sector has been heavily targeted and responded to legislation that has closed a significant number of coal burning power stations in the last five or more years, and therefore reduced significantly the levels of SO2 in the atmosphere. It is therefore widely known that to achieve the ambitious targets within the NECD by 2020 and 2030 that the Government will need to slice emissions from multiple sectors giving rise to the notion that the next significant improvement in air quality will therefore be ‘by a thousand cuts’.
Beyond the NECD the Government is currently working on Local NO2 Plans for reducing toxic levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from road traffic. The framework likely to be adopted in the Clean Air Zone (CAZ) – which will penalise motor vehicle owners who do not meet specific applicable emission standards for their vehicle types. It is hoped that this will accelerate the adoption and uptake of lower emitting vehicles and /or alternatively fuelled vehicles. However, there is a significant hurdle to get over with respect to the public’s perception of air quality issues that is needed to invoke the necessary behavioural changes to achieve this. Moreover, the extent to which we switch our vehicles to cleaner vehicles or alternatives is dependent upon the accessibility to infrastructure (in respect of electricity charging points for EVs) or our own individual sense of wealth, which in itself is dependent upon a buoyant economy – something that could be elusive in the coming years with continued political uncertainty.
Monitoring and air quality management provide the basis of scientific evidence to Government and legislators that progress against legal compliance is being achieved, or that air quality is improving. For monitoring, evidence is provided in respect of the concentrations of specific pollutants in air which need to be achieved, for example an annual mean NO2 limit value of 40 µg/m3, or an hourly average of 200 µg/m3 at locations where “members of the public may be reasonably exposed”.
Air Quality Management is a process by which appraisal of emissions and compliance can be achieved whilst ensuring that the economic viability of any sector, specific installation (giving rise to emissions) or area (towns, cities, etc) can still be achieved. The current high profile debate on a third runway at Heathrow Airport is an example of whether economic need takes a precedent over local environmental quality issues (such as air pollution and noise) and is currently going through a judicial review to establish whether permission to go ahead by UK Cabinet has followed due legal process.
At the individual level we are each faced with personal choices regarding our use of energy, and can substantially reduce our emissions footprint by being mindful of the need to be energy efficient, or by switching our energy providers to a renewable source. Most of our homes are heated through electricity or gas – there are very few instances of having to rely on wood burning stoves as the major source of keeping ourselves warm, so we all need to think whether we really need to have a wood burning stove in our house!
Our choice of transport mode – and indeed the fuel used in our cars – presents one of the biggest opportunity areas to improve air quality, although not without substantial barriers. For example, a switch from fossil fuel to electric powered vehicles will give rise to reductions in emissions during the drive cycle, but the emissions attributed to the electric source still arise, albeit that they are located at a single point source elsewhere (i.e. power stations).
For businesses there already exists some key drivers to achieve energy efficiency, including those tied in with climate change regulation. Other opportunities may include fleet upgrades, or for a smaller capital outlay, proactive decisions to remove worse polluting vehicles from routes where known areas of air pollution sensitivity exist. An upgrade in boiler plant or shift to community heating through Combined Heat & Power (CHP) plants, may also provide a further means by which business can contribute.
The response to the need to improve air quality is complex and no immediate wins are evident generally without either a change in the way we live our lives (personal choices), investment, or the rapid adoption of new technologies. What is clear is that there are significant benefits to our health and our environment in achieving a positive outcome to reduce emissions of air pollutants in our everyday lives.
Our team of highly qualified scientists works with clients to help understand the challenges on emissions reductions and air quality management. We can assist through: