Press release: 24 October 2022

Belgians follow German citizens, sue government over air pollution human rights issues

Residents across Belgium are taking legal action against their regional governments, demanding that they uphold their right to breathe clean and healthy air.

The legal action comes just weeks after seven citizens launched a similar case in Germany, and just days before the European Commission is due to unveil its proposal for the revision of the EU’s principal air quality law, the Ambient Air Quality Directive (AAQD), which sets air quality thresholds for all 27 Member States.

The case seeks to have the Belgian courts recognise people’s right to clean and healthy air. Like Germany, Belgian authorities have failed to take action after the World Health Organization (WHO) – the world’s leading authority on air pollution and health – slashed recommended limits in its air quality guidelines last year by 75% in some cases.

By leaving air pollution laws unchanged, the Belgian authorities are exposing people to levels of air pollution that are up to four times higher than scientists have deemed is acceptable to breathe.

The nine claimants – most of whom suffer from respiratory health issues – together with environmental lawyers at ClientEarth, are demanding that the authorities tighten air quality laws in light of the latest science to protect them and their families from dangerous pollution.

The claimants say 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.

Denis, a claimant from Charleroi, said: “I’m taking action because I want to continue to live in the city centre of my hometown – not be forced to move somewhere less polluted to protect my health.

“I have adapted my behaviour to minimise the risks to my health. But the science shows that authorities are doing too little to protect their citizens, especially for someone like me who suffers from asthma.

“I believe that breathing healthy air is a fundamental right, as is the right to a stable climate, for example. Governments are clearly not doing enough and we are collectively paying the price. They must act now.”

According to the European Environment Agency, air pollution is the main environmental risk factor for human health in Europe. It can be linked to asthma attacks, cancers and heart attacks and strokes with an increasing number of studies showing how it can also affect other parts of our bodies and even foetuses.

Claimant Sim, from Antwerp, said: “As a father, I fear for the health of my family. We live next to one of the most polluted streets in Antwerp, which means my children are exposed to dangerous pollution that will likely impact them for the rest of their lives.

“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.”

The three regional authorities are being sued in the Brussels Civil Court as the claimants argue that air pollution does not stop at regional borders and therefore tackling this health crisis requires a coordinated national approach.

ClientEarth fundamental rights lawyer Irmina Kotiuk said: “Clean and healthy air is a fundamental right so the Belgian authorities should be doing everything in their power to make sure their laws are fit to protect citizens from breathing air pollution that scientists now know seriously endangers people’s health.

“Stronger air pollution laws are the cornerstone of nationwide action. That is only possible if the Belgian authorities work together to protect people’s health – a piecemeal approach will only continue to leave people exposed to dirty air.”

The EU is due to release a proposal for its updated AAQD this week – however, the publication of the proposal is only the first step of a legislative process that will take years to finalise. Once agreed, the transposition and implementation process means EU Member States may not be obliged to comply with new limits for several years.

Kotiuk added: “EU countries can’t use the European Commission’s decision to review the bloc’s air quality laws as an excuse not to take prompt action themselves. We know that new air quality thresholds will take years to agree and even longer to implement. EU citizens’ health is at risk now. Their right to breathe clean and healthy air is valid today and leaders need to uphold it.”


Notes to editors:

Case information

The action is being filed in the Brussels Civil Court against the Flemish, Walloon, and Brussels-Capital regions. The federal government has also been notified.

The nine claimants are supported by environmental organisation ClientEarth, which is also a claimant in the case.

According to the claimants, the pollution thresholds in Belgian law reflect outdated science, meaning the current laws allow concentrations of pollution up to four times higher than the World Health Organization (WHO) has said is acceptable. They say this infringes their fundamental rights.

The claimants are demanding that the Belgian authorities review and strengthen annual legal limits for air pollution in light of the WHO’s recommendations as well as introduce daily legal limits as recommended by the WHO. The claimants are also asking that the authorities provide more comprehensive information on the health risks linked to air pollution and the measures that can be taken to protect one’s health.

Pollutants under scrutiny in the legal action are nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

The WHO’s upper limit recommendations for the annual mean concentration of pollutants in question are as follows:

PM2.5 – 5μg/m3. EU legal limits are now 5 times higher than WHO recommendations.

NO2 – 10μg/m3. EU legal limits are now 4 times higher than WHO recommendations.

Claimants – background

The claimants are:

  • Denis, suffers with asthma, Charleroi
  • Eric, suffers with asthma, Brussels
  • Geert, father representing his son who suffers with asthma, Brussels
  • Marleen, suffers with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Bornem
  • Bram, suffers with asthma, Antwerp
  • Sim and his partner Sara as well as their two children, Antwerp

To request an interview with one of the claimants, please contact ClientEarth (details below).

Health impacts of air pollution

Read more from the World Health Organization (WHO) about air pollution and its health impacts here.

The latest research has found toxic air pollution particles were present in the lungs, livers and brains of unborn foetuses.

Research has also 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.

Related reports and lawsuits

In 2021, ClientEarth won a five-year legal battle for clean air in Brussels, together with local residents. The ruling found that the Brussels authorities had not been measuring levels of air pollution in the most polluted streets and were ordered to install a new monitoring station. The data from the new station regularly shows higher levels of air pollution than at other sampling points in the monitoring network.

In 2021, Greenpeace’s won its case against the Flemish government over illegal levels of air pollution. The court confirmed the payment of a daily penalty of up to €750,000 if the government failed to comply.

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. The cases brought by DUH and ClientEarth together 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 German cities where legal action had been taken.

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.

Last week, France’s top administrative court published a ruling requiring the government to pay two €10 million fines for breaching air pollution limits.

About ClientEarth

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.