Air quality in Brussels: The good, the bad and the ugly

Thursday, 02 February 2017 17:50
A few years ago, Lisette van Vliet’s family were forced to leave their home in Brussels. The reason was what some have branded the “massive” problem with the quality of the city’s air.
Lisette, who will soon be following her husband and daughter, says: “My family was forced to leave Brussels because of my daughter’s health problems, which I am fairly certain the air pollution here contributed a great deal to. She is now living in a place which is more than 20% under the World Health Organization (WHO) safe limits, and her health has vastly improved.”

The case illustrates the scale of the problem in Brussels and the impact it can have. It is estimated that Brussels is exceeding the WHO limits (as many other cities in Europe). Brussels is now being taken to court by the environmental law firm ClientEarth over its failure to comply with EU air quality directives.

ClientEarth lawyer Ugo Taddei said that a first decision from the court is expected this February. “Having a proper monitoring network is only the first step. Our main ask in the court action is to force the Brussels government to produce a better air quality plan, containing all adequate measures to ensure that compliance with the air quality limit values is achieved in the shortest time possible.”

Another ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews said: “We have successfully challenged the UK government and authorities in Germany over their failure to protect their people from air pollution. Now we are helping people in Belgium and the Czech Republic fight for their right to breathe clean air.”

According to ClientEarth, citizens in Brussels have been breathing illegal levels of air pollution since at least 2010. The case at the Court of First Instance in Brussels started on 13 January when the judge was asked to consider one of two requests concerning the lack of adequate monitoring stations in Brussels.

This and other cases, all brought before national courts but based on the EU Ambient Air Quality Directive, aim to oblige governments to take robust measures to bring air pollution within legal limits as soon as possible.

In a landmark 2014 judgment in the ClientEarth case against the UK Government, the European Court of Justice ruled that national courts have a duty to hold governments to account where they fail to keep pollution within legal limits.

The Brussels region does have a plan to reduce air pollution but campaigners for clean air don’t think that it goes far enough.

An Air-Energy-Climate Plan was adopted in 2016 and aims at reducing car emissions by limiting parking places. The plan was revised after a big campaign by Clean Air Brussels to also include a Low Emission Zone.

Low Emissions Zones are city areas where high-polluting cars are forbidden to enter or have to pay to enter. Brussels is planning to implement such a zone in 2018. Antwerp implemented a Low Emission Zone as of 1 February 2017. Diesel cars and old cars have to pay a fee to enter the city centre.

Another measure is the pedestrian reform in Brussels city that has reduced the pollution but only in the pedestrian zone, according to the campaigners. Black carbon emissions dropped substantially in the city centre but increased on some of the roads adjacent to the pedestrian zone.

A spokesman for the Environment and Energy Agency of the Brussels-Capital Region acknowledged that some areas of the city don’t meet EU norms on air quality but still believes Brussels “compares favourably” with other EU capitals of similar size, adding that the pedestrianisation scheme had improved things.

However, he pointed out that of the 11-air quality testing stations scattered at various locations, two (at Arts-Loi and Rue Belliard) were closed for several years.  The Arts-Loi station is back online since December 2016. These two traffic-choked sites have registered the strongest concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – more than double the legal limit.

Protests against the air quality situation in Brussels and the lack of reliable data in exposed areas have also been voiced by the European Union Cyclists' Group, representing 1600 staff of the EU-institutions that come to work by bike. It also complained that European Schools in Brussels are using old school buses which are emitting much more than allowed today.

In an open letter in September 2016 to the European Commission, it stated that the Commission has a double responsibility: a duty of care of its employees and their families and, as a large and high-profile employer, a duty to influence the Belgian/Brussels authorities to improve and monitor the air quality. “Measures need to be taken on the basis of reliable air quality data.”

European Commission calls on member states to comply with air quality directive

Enrico Brivio, spokesman for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries directorate general at the European Commission, admits that air quality in Belgium “continues to give rise to concerns about human health.”

For 2015, excesses of binding limit values were reported for NO2 in the “air quality zone” of Brussels. Furthermore, in 2015 for several air quality zones, the long-term objectives, regarding ozone concentration, were not met in Brussels (as well as in Antwerp and Ghent).

The EU Ambient Air Quality Directive requires EU member states to set up monitoring networks to measure air quality throughout the year. Last year, the European Commission raised concerns about the NO2 measurements in Brussels.

“Monitoring stations that showed the highest concentrations have not been functioning in the past,” Brivio says. “An exchange with the Belgian authorities on this is ongoing.” In fact, in June 2015 the European Commission referred Belgium to the European Court of Justice over persistently high levels of dust particles (PM10) which pose a major risk to public health.

However, the European limit value for PM10 is no longer exceeded in Brussels since 2014 and in Belgium since 2015, says the Belgian Interregional Environment Agency.

Tiny particles known as PM10s, mostly resulting from human activities such as transport, industries, and domestic heating, cause respiratory problems, lung cancer and premature death. Belgium is far from the only member state which has not complied with the directive. For PM10, there are court cases against 16 member states. For NO2, there are 6 procedures under way.

Asked about how air quality in Brussels rank with other EU capitals, Brivo replied:  “In 23 out of 28 member states, air quality standards are still not being satisfied – in total in over more than 130 cities across Europe. Unfortunately, this is the case in Brussels as well. Brussels still faces levels of air pollution above the European limit values.”

In 2015, Brussels, he said, reported excesses regarding the annual limit value for NO2. However, compared to other cities, the maximum measured annual limit average in Brussels is actually relatively low, 45 µg/m3, compared to 84 µg/m3 in Paris and 53 µg/m3 in Berlin. The limit value is 40 µg/m3.

According to a World Health Organization report in 2016, other countries in Europe are much worse off. Poland is home to 33 out of Europe's 50 most polluted cities (measured by average concentration of PM2.5), followed by Bulgaria. It regularly surpasses EU limits on pollution owing to a heavy reliance on coal and a lack of government action on green technology.

So, as bad as the situation here is, you can take heart that Brussels is still not the worst in Europe for air quality. And the good news is that Brussels is planning to implement a low emission zone and that the city does have a plan to reduce air pollution.

The Commission official says that cutting air pollution means reducing traffic, particularly diesel, emissions. Of the total emitted NOx from traffic, around 80% comes from diesel powered vehicles.

“There is a wide range of effective measures available to this end. Creating zones in city centres where polluting cars are either banned or charged is important, while making cities safe for cycling and walking cuts traffic too.”

Last November, ambitious targets to reduce air pollution and cut premature deaths from poor air quality were given the final sign off by the European Commission. According to the Commission, air pollution kills over 450,000 people in Europe each year. This is more than ten times as many as road traffic accidents.

Member states must transpose the Directive into national legislation by 30 June 2018 and produce a National Air Pollution Control Programme by 2019 setting out measures to ensure that emissions of five main air pollutants are reduced by the percentages agreed by 2020 and 2030.

By Martin Banks


The impact of air pollution on children

Two recent studies illustrate the scale of the issue, not just in Brussels but elsewhere in Belgium.

One found that pupils underperform in class on days when the air is more polluted. Researchers went to three Flemish primary schools in Zonhoven, Tienen and Hasselt and noted that pupils' scores increased when the air was purer. In contrast, this was not the case, for pupils whose home environment had greater levels of pollution.

Epidemiology Professor Tim Nawrot (University of Hasselt or UHasselt), says: “The differences are subtle but disruptive for the pupils and the effect of air pollution is almost as much of a determining factor on overall performance as the level of parents' education. We cannot deny that air quality has consequences on a cognitive level.”

Furthermore, separate research, which included 4,760 twins, conducted by Esmée Bijnens (Hasselt University/Maastricht University), found that greater exposure to air pollution during pregnancy leads to a higher chance of low birth weight in twins, in proportion to the duration of the pregnancy. The results reveal that good air quality and green urban planning have positive health effects at birth and later in life. 

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