Press release: 17 December 2020

Final court hearing: Brussels authorities deny toxic air indicated by own monitoring stations

In a final hearing today over the Brussels regional government’s failure to ensure the right to clean air in the city, the authority’s lawyers continued to deny the true extent of the pollution problem.

They argued that the government’s own monitoring stations, which consistently detect high levels of pollution, are unreliable and that no additional action to address the illegal levels of air pollution is needed.

The final hearing comes following a four-year legal battle brought by ClientEarth and five local residents against the Brussels regional government for its failure to deliver an adequate air quality plan to clean up the city’s air ‘as soon as possible’ – as the law requires.

The case also aims to oblige the authorities to address the illegal gaps in the air monitoring network in the city and ensure concentrations of air pollutants are measured where people are exposed to the highest concentrations.

ClientEarth lawyer Ugo Taddei said: “It has been four years since we took action to demand that the Brussels regional government fulfil their legal obligation to clean up the city’s toxic air, but despite announcing several promising initiatives, Brussels authorities still need to prove they are taking air pollution seriously.

“On the contrary, rather than admitting that there is a problem and committing to solve it, the Brussels lawyers in court today have gone as far as discrediting the reliability of air quality measurements carried out by the government’s own environmental agency. In doing so, they expose the residents and workers of this city to unacceptable health risks in their day to day lives.”

In a landmark verdict yesterday, the Southwark Coroners Court in the UK ruled that air pollution was a material contribution to the death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah – a nine-year-old girl from London who died following an asthma attack that led to cardiac arrest in 2013.

Taddei added: “This ground-breaking decision could pave the way for individuals taking action against their governments when they fail to keep levels of air pollution below legally binding standards and the recommendations of the World Health Organization.”

In 2019, two separate scientific bodies confirmed that Belgium suffers from the highest number of new asthma cases among children related to traffic pollution in Europe.

Reacting to the hearing today, one of the claimants in the case, Karin DeSchepper, said: “The actions needed to clean up our air are known and feasible, so there can be no more excuses. We need to see the long overdue action we were promised so that we all can breathe the clean air we deserve.”

Lies Craeynest, another claimant, added: “This past year should be a wake-up call to the Brussels government – clean air in Brussels is not only achievable, but what people are demanding for in their city in the wake of Covid-19. The Brussels government must turn this difficult year into an opportunity to finally commit to build a healthy city for all.”

According to a report published by CE Delft in October 2020, air pollution costs on average almost €1,400 every year for each Brussels citizen.


Notes to editors:

More information on the background of the case is available here.

Nitrogen oxides are harmful gas emitted mainly by diesel vehicles and are the main source of the illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in more than 130 cities across the EU. Studies have shown they have adverse effects on human health. Nitrogen dioxide is linked to higher rates of cancers, heart diseases, heart attacks and asthma attacks. It can also lead to low birth weight and stunted lung development in children. An estimate of 68,000 premature deaths in the EU in 2016 were attributable to exposure to NO2 pollution.

ClientEarth’s legal challenge against the Brussels regional government focuses on NO2, which in cities comes mostly from diesel vehicles.

Despite air pollution regularly exceeding the legal limits in Brussels since 2010, the regional government has tried to dodge its legal obligation to adopt an air quality plan by using legal technicalities to discount the results from individual monitoring stations that record illegal levels of NO2.

In 2019, two separate scientific bodies confirmed that Belgium suffers from the highest number of new asthma cases among children related to traffic pollution in Europe. The Independent Health Insurance Funds (the Onafhankelijk ziekenfonds and Partena) undertook a study among Belgian children concerning asthma medication, finding that Belgium has the most new asthma patients due to air pollution (NO2) in Europe.

In April 2019, the Lancet published a study done by the George Washington University that confirms the direct correlation between traffic pollution and new asthma incidents, estimating that globally NO2 concentrations might be associated with four million new paediatric asthma cases annually. The data also confirms that almost a quarter of Belgian children with asthma developed it due to traffic emissions, making Belgium the ninth worst affected country globally.

According to the latest report from the European Environment Agency, air pollution (PM2.5) was responsible for almost 7,500 premature deaths in Belgium in 2018 alone. In 2018, the premature deaths related to exposure to NO2 in Belgium was 1,200.

About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a charity that uses the power of the law to protect people and the planet. We are international lawyers finding practical solutions for the world’s biggest environmental challenges. We are fighting climate change, protecting oceans and wildlife, making forest governance stronger, greening energy, making business more responsible and pushing for government transparency. We believe the law is a tool for positive change. From our offices in London, Brussels, Warsaw, Berlin and Beijing, we work on laws throughout their lifetime, from the earliest stages to implementation. And when those laws are broken, we go to court to enforce them.