The quest to establish clean air in care homes

Journalist Emily Whitehouse speaks to Islington Council about their up-and-coming plans to monitor air quality inside nursing homes to help protect the most vulnerable.

‘I’ve never heard of any care home monitoring their air quality, but social care is always cast aside so I can’t say I’m surprised,’ said Josh Hawker, a care home manager based in Bristol.

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Since the beginning of 2020 the social care sector has been in turmoil, with staff retention rates at an all-time low and funding cuts stripping residents of a level of care they deserve. If nothing else, the pandemic focussed the collective mind on air quality and ventilation but without the appropriate funding, little has been achieved in the places that matter.

According to a report by the British Lung Foundation, 26% of care homes in England are situated in areas that exceed air quality guidelines published by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In 2021 WHO claimed air pollutants should never exceed 5 µg/mbut authors of the report highlight pollution levels in London are concerning as all 32 boroughs were found to exceed air quality limits, which can be catastrophic for older people as they are more prone to respiratory problems such as COPD.  

Taking this research into account, one London-based local authority is going above and beyond to try and minimise the risk of care home residents being infected by polluted air. Councillor Rowena Champion, executive member for environment, air quality and transport at Islington Council, says the local authority’s new scheme to monitor and improve air quality is the first of its kind in the UK.

‘The care home project is one of many council initiatives aiming to improve air quality and protect residents in Islington,’ Cllr Champion says. ‘Having recently delivered a project educating health professionals at GP surgeries about the health risks associated with air pollution, creating a clean air action plan at Whittington Hospital and our ongoing work delivering school air quality audits; we were conscious that residents at care homes were one of the vulnerable groups that we had not yet completed specialised work with.’

Despite the project only being in the early stages – it was announced in June 2023 – the council have made quick progress with the scheme. As it stands, Cllr Champion explains, Islington have already completed audits at ten local care homes, highlighting indoor areas that are more susceptible to air pollution as well as the quality of air outside. inside a care home that are more suspectable to air pollution and the quality of air outside. One of these is the picturesque Bridgeside Lodge, which sits alongside the Regent’s Canal, one of the borough’s most popular walking spots.

Following the audit, the home has now begun using a service called Airtext, which provides them with an alert when pollution levels are high, helping to inform staff of when residents should be protected. To take further action, the home are also shutting windows when solid fuels are being burnt outside. Cllr Champion adds: ‘Our work with Bridgeside Lodge is still at an early stage but, in time, they’re looking to apply for funding to improve their community garden by planting more plants to absorb air pollution.’

Of course there is one – inevitable – problem. One that plagues the social care sector at every turn and could prevent Islington from achieving its goals: funding. When speaking to Josh Hawker, it didn’t take him long to speculate that monitoring air quality inside homes will never become a top priority while establishments are battling for money just to cover basic costs such as staff’s salaries, beds and medical equipment. He said, ‘the only way air quality can be properly assessed in care homes is if the government provide a sperate grant, and the chances of this happening are zero to none.’

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He adds: ‘Councils only pay us the absolute bare minimum because they receive so little funding from central government. For example, Bristol City Council wants to pay me £833 per week to look after someone and it is costing me around £900. If we’re under budget to keep somebody comfortable, I’m not sure where funding for air quality checks would come from.’

That said, lack of funding from the government has failed to dampen Islington’s enthusiasm for their clean air project. To kickstart their campaign, the council successfully applied to DEFRA for funding and were allocated £4,000. Following this, once the local authority have conducted audits within all the care homes, establishments will be invited to apply for a larger grant that reaches up to £100,000 in a bid help implement necessary measures, if air quality levels are found to be particularly bad. 

Cllr Champion says, ‘Care homes will be asked to demonstrate the types of small and low-cost changes they have already made to improve air quality on site and explain how the larger grant they are applying for will have the required impact.

‘Funding could be spent on initiatives including new pollution monitors, bringing additional greening to care homes, installing new ventilation and filtration systems, new planting, shifting to more sustainable modes of transport, or even changing the layout of a home to reduce residents’ exposure to air pollution.’   

Going forward, Cllr Champion says the local authority will continue to support care homes, as helping to ensure the safety of vulnerable people against air pollution is one of their top priorities. It is critical that people living in care homes should not have to worry about their health deteriorating whilst living in an environment that is supposed to protect them. Cllr Champion adds if all boroughs in London, and local authorities across the UK, were to adopt a similar approach, it would be a great step towards ensuring residents, relatives and staff do not have to worry about the air quality inside homes. Although with the Islington project still in the early stages and it being the first scheme to monitor air pollution levels in care homes, only time will tell if significant improvements are made.

Images: Emil Kalibradov and Ani Kolleshi

More features:

Adult social care reforms: how can councils step up to support those in need?

The role of data: unravelling the government’s adult social care roadmap



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