Good indoor air quality is in jeopardy

German Environment Agency publishes What matters 2017

A craftsman laying a wooden floor.Click to enlarge
Healthy air in buildings and homes is one of the topics in this year's UBA What matters publication.
Source: Halfpoint / Fotolia.com

The German Environment Agency (UBA) is warning of potential health risks as a result of staying in buildings which do not meet adequate European standards. This has been relevant by reason of a ruling issued by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which will no longer allow Member States in future to impose stricter health protection requirements for construction products at national level. UBA's President Maria Krautzberger said: "It concerns everything from parquet flooring in the living room to the carpeting in kindergartens: the EU may not scale down demands on health and environmental protection. One must continue to be able to determine whether construction products are harmful to health or not." Healthy air in buildings and homes is one of the topics addressed in this year's UBA What matters publication (Schwerpunkte 2017).

The Deutsches Institut für Bautechnik (DIBt) had required thorough testing of construction products which affect indoor air until autumn 2016. Product conformity with standards was marked in Germany in an "Ü" and also required strict compliance with regulations regarding volatile organic compounds (VOC), which may be contained in flooring, varnishes and sealants. In excessive concentrations, VOCs are harmful to health and can cause headaches or dizziness. The "Ü" symbol used in Germany may no longer be used pursuant to the ruling by the ECJ. Although the EU Commission has made a proposal to amend the EU's standardised CE labelling of construction products to include health aspects, it leaves room for emissions of VOCs from solvents and other chemical additives without specific labelling thereof. "Germany's high standards are in jeopardy. Since we spend more than 80 per cent of our time indoors, this is a very critical point. Consumers must be able to recognize and check whether or not construction products in the home, kindergartens and offices are a health risk," said Ms Krautzberger. "We need clear labelling for that purpose." Much in the same fashion as fire protection classes, a class system for VOC could be established. 

Another UBA priority topic this year is agriculture. President Krautzberger said: "Intensive agriculture is exposing water, soil, air, climate and biodiversity to great stress. Cleaning up the environmental damage caused by agriculture incurs costs to the general public. A recent test done by UBA showed that the drinking water in some regions in Germany stands to become much more expensive if nitrate inputs from agriculture are not reduced. "The new Fertiliser Application Ordinance will bring improvement. The application of fertilisers in autumn – a time when the risk of nitrate inputs to groundwater is particularly high– will be limited," said Ms Krautzberger. However, UBA doubts whether the amended and new provisions in fertiliser law will be able to achieve the objective in the national sustainability strategy to contain nitrogen surplus to a maximum of 70 kg/hectare by 2030. 

Climate change mitigation is another of UBA's priority topics in 2017. President Maria Krautzberger has called on government not to lose sight of its own climate change goals. "According to the Federal Government's Climate Action Plan 2050, the energy sector must halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared to 2014. This means that more than half of the power generation capacity of hard coal and lignite power plants will have to be cut by 2030." UBA proposed a number of ways to phase out coal power back in January 2017, for example imposing surcharges on fossil fuels such as coal or curtailing the lifetime of coal power plants. All the proposals could be implemented at national level but would have to be accompanied by an intensification of emissions trading in Europe. "A well-regulated structural change would have to be initiated in the regions affected, thus assuring planning certainty for investors and new jobs for workers; it would also prevent bad investments in new or expanded open-cast mines," said Ms Krautzberger. "Germany's climate change goal is to cut emissions by 80-95% by 2050 (base year: 1990). This goal must be firmly established in climate legislation that also defines a framework for adaptation to climate change", Ms Krautzberger continued.