18th November 2022
“Our home was in a really congested area – so was my son's nursery. I felt like I was poisoning him every morning.” – Chiara, mother to a six-year-old son suffering from lung problems linked to air pollution.
We all want future generations to grow up in a safe and healthy environment. We might think that breathing clean and healthy air is a given. Unfortunately, dirty air is still the biggest environmental health risk in Europe, with levels of air pollution reaching four to five times higher than the world’s leading scientists have deemed safe to breathe.
Failing to bring down illegal levels of air pollution not only breaches the law but has serious repercussions for people’s health. Air pollution can be linked to asthma attacks, cancers, heart attacks and strokes with an increasing number of studies showing how it can also affect other parts of our bodies and even foetuses.
This is why Chiara, a mother from Turin, Italy, has joined other parents across Europe fighting to protect their children against harmful levels of air pollution – which authorities have a legal duty to tackle. They are demanding immediate action to tackle this health crisis, so that they and their children can finally breathe easy.
Italy has one of the most polluted air in Europe, with Turin ranked the third most polluted city in Europe for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels. To make matters worse, Italy’s air pollution levels have consistently broken EU law since 2005. The Piedmont region, which includes Turin, is not aiming to meet the EU’s legal limits before 2030.
Chiara is fighting on behalf of her six-year-old son, who suffers from lung problems, asthma and recurrent infections, linked to being exposed to high and often illegal levels of air pollution in Turin.
Chiara explains: “My son has never been able to attend nursery regularly. He's spent a lot of time alone, undergoing treatment with cortisone and antibiotics and dealing with the side effects.
“I feel discontentment, powerlessness, distrust. But I also feel strongly that something can be done.”
Chiara is demanding that the court recognise her son’s right to breathe clean and healthy air and hold the regional authorities accountable for the damage breathing illegally polluted air has done to her son’s health. She is also demanding that the court orders the Piedmont region to take immediate action to reduce illegal levels of air pollution as soon as possible, as required by Italian and EU laws.
“I'm doing it for my son, and I'm doing it for me and for everyone else – even if they’re not aware of this huge problem.” – Chiara
Chiara is not alone in her fight for her son to breathe healthy air. Families in Germany, Belgium and Poland are demanding that the authorities go beyond current EU air pollution limits and tighten air quality laws in light of the latest science from the World Health Organization (WHO) to protect them and their families from dangerous pollution. They are arguing that failing to act breaches their fundamental right to breathe clean and healthy air and puts their and their children’s health at unnecessary risk.
In Germany, one of the seven claimants, Constanze, from Düsseldorf, said: “I’m taking action for my two children. They deserve to grow up healthy – living in a city should not condemn them to getting sick because of air pollution, and carrying its impacts with them for the rest of their lives.”
For Sim, one of nine individuals suing Belgium’s three regional governments, the impact of air pollution on his family is particularly concerning.
“As a father, I fear for the health of my family. I want my children to grow up in a healthy environment and not suffer the consequences of a lack of political will. The government has a duty to protect us and our children today as well as future generations.”
Like Chiara, Marta, a claimant in Poland, is also taking action on behalf of her son who suffers from asthma. Marta is joined by Tomasz, who has taken over the case from his father who passed away shortly after the case was launched, and together with Miasto Jest Nasze Association and ClientEarth, they are taking legal action against the Mazovian region authorities for failing to take effective measures to protect citizens in Warsaw and Mazovia from breathing toxic air.
Marta said: “Smog became an inseparable part of my life when my one-year-old son was diagnosed with early childhood asthma. I am going to court because I do not want the authorities’ inaction to cause further deterioration to my son’s health. My son has the right to health.”
It’s clear that governments should be doing more to protect people’s health, and while the EU’s proposal for updating the bloc’s principal air quality law shows promise, the proposal is only the first step of a legislative process that will take years to finalise. In the meantime, people are continuing to be exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution. These cases show that EU citizens demand and deserve better.
However, not all courts are allowing people to defend their right to healthy air. In Poland, after the case was launched in September 2021, the Polish Supreme Administrative Court ruled that neither individuals nor NGOs have the right to challenge authorities’ air quality plans.
But Marta and Tomasz are not giving up and are now taking their fight to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). They’re arguing that denying citizens the right to go to court to protect their health as well as the State failing to comply with legally binding air quality standards is a breach of their fundamental rights. These rights are protected by the ECtHR, so it will now be up to the Court in Strasbourg to decide.