Big Interview: Air Quality Newstalks to Baroness Finlay

Baroness Finlay is a Welsh Doctor, Professor of Palliative Medicine, a Crossbench Member of the House of Lords and Chair of the CO Research Trust, a charity dedicated to reducing and preventing deaths caused by carbon monoxide (CO).  

Finlay played an influential role in the Environment Act, where despite rejections from the Commons, the House of Lords were calling for large scale reforms on environmental protection. 

‘What I and others were calling for was a clear recognition that air pollution is damaging our health,’ she tells Air Quality News.  

A key area where Baroness Finlay was calling for change was with the UK’s current monitoring network.  

‘Air quality monitoring in the UK is grossly inadequate,’ says Finlay.  

‘The problem is, the current system is based on sampling and so it has to be sampling at the right place and at the right time in order to generate an accurate picture of the air quality.  

‘Unless you properly monitor air pollution, then you’re not going to know if you’ve got improvements or not.’  

Baroness Finlay was also personally calling for schools to monitor and reduce air pollution.  

‘It’s particularly concerning that some of the places with the most polluted air are places where children are growing up. We know that atmospheric pollution disproportionately affects children. It affects brain development, mental health and can even affect pregnant women through the placenta to then be handed on to the next generation. 

‘At the moment, there is talk about monitoring carbon dioxide in classrooms, but this doesn’t tell you anything about the concentrations of toxic air that is coming through the windows.’

However, like any politician, Baroness Finlay knows that if you want to make changes, you need to know how to pay for them.  

‘It would cost money to install new and better monitors and they have to be maintained and the results analysed and financial considerations will always come into play 

‘Do you put up tax in one area to pay for it? And if you do, which taxes do you put up to pay for it, how do you make the books balance at the end of the day? The government has to balance the books at the end of the day.’ 

But using economic reasons for a lack of inaction on air pollution has been criticised many times over.  

A recent report published by the Clean Air Fund found that reducing pollution to World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended levels could benefit the UK economy by £1.6bn annually by reducing premature deaths, reducing sickness absence and improving productivity at work.  

However, according to Baroness Finlay, governments are too focused on short-term investments, ‘investing in the future is not something that governments tend to be good at,’ she says.  

The government has also come under scrutiny for not using the Environment Act to update the legal air quality limits to comply with WHO guidelines.  

‘The thing is the WHO guidelines will probably tighten up further and to be generous to the government, I would say that they actually want to see what the WHO settles to and then they will go after that level.  

‘The other thing is, if you set a target which is attainable then you stand a chance of meeting it, but if you set a target which really stretches you then you know the media headline will be that you failed. I can see why a government would want to work towards an attainable target and then really tighten it up after that. There is logic to taking action in stages rather than in one fell swoop.’  

With her work at the CO Research Trust, Baroness Finlay is also very involved in highlighting the importance of good indoor air quality.  

In a recent article published in Air Quality News, she was calling for the Building Safety Bill to recognise a healthy, affordable and sustainable indoor environment.  

Baroness Finlay was calling for:  

  • Advice to be targeted towards occupants of small flats (especially those adjacent to major roads)  
  • Purposed provided ventilation (PPV) to be included  in any refurbishment strategy 
  • The continued promotion of advice to owner-occupiers and remind private/social landlords to perform regular boiler and gas cooker servicing to help reduce exposure. 
  • Education/promotion should continue to focus on behavioural changes such as smoking outdoors, using extractor fans during cooking and allowing for additional ventilation through window opening. 

‘There are no ‘safe levels’ of air pollution, whether that is indoors or outdoors. Air pollutants are present in every home. However, there are large groups of people who are being put at greater risk due to the current housing policy approach. This has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the increased requirements for people to remain at home,’ Finlay writes.  

The Building Safety Bill is still in the report stage, but so far, action to improve indoor air quality seems negligible.  

‘The indoor air is seen as your private space, so I think there is a hesitancy by any party to legislate it.’ 

‘I think people also tend to think that pollution is only generated from outside sources and therefore if they’re inside, they’re not breathing in polluted air. But they’re not thinking about sources indoors that may be providing pollution’ 

However, with one in eight households in Great Britain having no access to a private or shared garden, action to improve air quality has never been more important.  

Despite the lack of action in the Environment Act, Baroness Finlay remains optimistic for the future of air quality, ‘We shouldn’t be passively fatalistic, we should say, look, actually we can do something about it if we can act now, we can reverse the trends.  

‘The pandemic has helped many people to be aware of the nature around them and aware of how things can be better, we need to use that as momentum to push for action.’ 

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