Press release: 26 September 2022
German citizens sue government as air pollution hits health
Residents of cities across Germany are suing the federal government over health issues and concerns caused by air pollution nationwide.
The German government failed to respond after global experts at the World Health Organization (WHO) slashed recommended thresholds last year – in some cases by around 75%. German air pollution law remains unchanged.
This leaves people breathing in air that can contain up to four or five times the amount of toxic pollution than scientists know is dangerous – and authorities with no mandate to change the situation.
This failure to align with the science, the claimants say, is leaving their and their children’s health at the mercy of toxic pollution – and infringing their fundamental rights.
The seven claimants, from Germany’s top four most polluted cities, include parents acting on behalf of their children and several asthma sufferers. They are demanding the government take immediate action to tighten the laws to protect them and their families from dangerous pollution.
They are supported by environmental organisations ClientEarth and Deutsche Umwelthilfe.
Claimant 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.
“My goal with this challenge is to prevent any more avoidable damage to people’s health from air pollution – it’s our government’s duty to protect my children, and all of us.”
Volker, a claimant from Munich, said: “Air pollution may not often be named the official cause of death, but it claims lives – and causes long-term diseases, including cancer, heart problems, shortness of breath and strokes. I myself suffer with asthma.
“In many ways air pollution is an invisible issue – not enough people understand how badly it’s affecting them.
“Politicians are doing too little to protect people – particularly those most exposed. There are many ways to reduce pollution, but what’s missing is the political will to implement them.
“To change that, I am now suing for my right to breathe clean and healthy air.”
While pollution in Germany has sunk significantly in the past few years, and now often complies with current EU law, the goalposts have moved: the WHO has dropped what it deems acceptable by a factor of four or five in some cases.
This means that even though cities are no longer illegally polluted, people are still breathing dangerously dirty air.
ClientEarth fundamental rights lawyer Irmina Kotiuk said: “We have somehow ended up living in a world where transport and industry seem to have more rights than people themselves. The scale of the problem is clear – more data emerges every year on how many people are affected by air pollution, how many people die early, and the myriad ways breathing toxic air can harm and alter our bodies. Yet while there are some local champions, national governments are painfully slow to address it.”
The EU is currently reforming its principal air quality law – the Ambient Air Quality Directive (AAQD) – which sets the upper pollution thresholds for the whole bloc. However, once agreed, the adoption and implementation process means EU Member States won’t be obliged to comply with new limits for several years.
Kotiuk added: “There has always been an epic delay when it comes to EU countries complying with air pollution law – they need to take action now to prevent any more lives being blighted unnecessarily, and any more children carrying the legacy of dirty air for life.
“What’s needed here is simple – alignment of national air quality laws with the science laid out by the world’s leading experts. This is the bare minimum our leaders should be doing to protect people.”
Notes to editors:
The action is being filed in the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany. The laws and commitments invoked are Germany’s ‘basic’ or fundamental law (Grundgesetz), and Germany’s signature to the European Convention on Human Rights and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Pollutants under scrutiny are nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5).
According to the seven claimants, the pollution thresholds contained in German law reflect outdated science, meaning they are breathing air with concentrations of pollution four to five times higher than the World Health Organization (WHO) has said is acceptable. They say this infringes their fundamental rights.
The WHO’s new recommendations were released exactly one year ago, and no related action has been taken by the German government since.
Claimants – background
The claimants are:
- Constanze, mother of two children, Düsseldorf
- Volker, suffers with asthma, Munich
- Georg, father, Berlin
- Saskia, midwife with three children, Berlin
- The case involves further adults and children, who wish to remain anonymous.
To request an interview with one of the claimants please contact Deutsche Umwelthilfe (details below).
The WHO’s upper limit recommendations for the pollutants in question are as follows:
PM2.5 – 5μg/m3
NO2 – 10μg/m3
Levels in the target cities are as follows:
(average in the last 10 years)
(average in the last 5 years)
Frankfurt am Main
Health impacts of air pollution
Read more from the World Health Organization (WHO) about air pollution and its health impacts here.
Research has recently emerged on exactly how air pollution can cause lung cancer.
A UK coroner confirmed that air pollution was the official cause of death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah.
- A major opinion in an EU-level case suggests that people in the EU may be able to sue their governments for financial compensation from air pollution damage.
- In a new legal development, France is expected to pay a €20 million fine for insufficient action on air pollution.
- ClientEarth recently won a five-year legal battle for clean air in Brussels, together with local residents.
- Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) and ClientEarth previously worked together to bring multiple cases in Germany over sky-high and illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution in German towns and cities. DUH’s solo cases numbered 40 in total.
This culminated in a ruling from the country’s top court confirming that city-level diesel restrictions were necessary when it was the fastest way to protect people’s health.
Air pollution sank twice as fast in cities where legal action had been taken.
Ellen Baker, Strategic Communications Manager, ClientEarth
email@example.com | +44 (0)7540 603534
Deutsche Umwelthilfe press office
firstname.lastname@example.org | +49 (0)30 2400867-20
ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.
About Deutsche Umwelthilfe
Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH, Environmental Action Germany) has been campaigning to preserve the natural foundations of life for more than 45 years. DUH is entitled to take legal action and has been successfully using this instrument since 2005 to enforce binding air quality standards. In 2020, in a similar action to this constitutional complaint, DUH supported claimants to demand more effective climate policy. In 2021, the Constitutional Court confirmed this complaint.