Belgium which is also officially the Kingdom of Belgium is a country in Western Europe. It shares a land border with four other countries and has a North Sea coastline. In 2020, it had an estimated population of almost 11.5 million people. It is split up into three autonomous regions known as Flanders, Wallonia and the Brussels-Capital Region.
At the beginning of 2021, Belgium was experiencing a period of “Moderate” air quality with a US AQI reading of 52. This figure is in line with the levels recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Out of the 98 countries that were measured in 2019, Belgium was ranked as 70.
In 2019, Brussels recorded a mean figure of 14.1 µg/m³, which classified it as “Moderate”. During the month of September, the WHO target figure was achieved with a reading of less than 10 µg/m³. In July and December, it was slightly worse with figures between 10 and 12 µg/m³. For the remaining 9 months, the air quality was Moderate with figures between 12.1 and 35.4 µg/m³.
For the last few years, the European daily limit value for particulate matter (PM10) was achieved in Flanders and Brussels. The European daily limit for particulate matter is 50 µg / m³ (daily average concentration). This limit may not be exceeded for more than 35 days in any year.
In Wallonia, the daily limit has not been exceeded for the fifth year in a row. In most locations (56 out of 76) fewer exceedances were measured than in 2018, at 18 measuring locations, there were more exceedance days.
The European annual limit values for PM10 (40 µg / m³) and PM2.5 (25 µg / m³) are respected at all measurement locations. PM10 is fine dust with a diameter of less than 10 micrometres. PM2.5 is the even smaller fraction with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres. The PM2.5 pollutant is more dangerous to health due to its microscopic size as it can penetrate deep into the lungs having bypassed the body’s self-defence mechanism.
The slow decrease in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations also continued in 2019. The annual average nitrogen dioxide in the automatic measuring stations decreased on average by 5 to 10 per cent compared to the previous year. The European annual limit value for carbon dioxide of 40 µg / m³ (also the recommended value of the WHO) was no longer exceeded at any measuring location that met the installation conditions as imposed by the European Directive 2008/50.
In places that did not meet the siting conditions according to Directive 2008/50, there were still exceedances in the Belliardstraat and at the Kunst-Wet intersection in Brussels and in the measuring stations along the ring (R1) in Antwerp. The measurements at these monitoring stations are representative of the immediate environment in the immediate vivinity but are not representative of the global exposure of the Belgian population, which means that according to Directive 2008/50 they are not used for assessing air quality.
It would appear that the air quality in Belgium is primarily affected by the emissions from vehicles, the automotive industry and from food processing. Household activities such as using solid fuel or wood in stoves and chemicals used in agriculture can also affect air quality.
According to the latest figures on air quality in Flanders, the good news is that the air is getting cleaner. Since 2000, particulate matter emissions have fallen by more than 25 per cent and nitrogen emissions have halved. Yet it is not yet healthy living in Flanders. Particulate matter, in particular, is problematic for health. Only 1 per cent of the population lives in a place where the air is really healthy according to the World Health Organisation.
The new figures come from the annual air quality report. The data concerns 2018 and is compared with the data from the year 2000. There is one constant in the figures: it is mainly combustion processes that cause air pollution. For example, combustion engines for transport (cars, shipping and aviation) are responsible for two-thirds of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions and traffic also makes a large contribution to elemental carbon (EC), the finest fraction of particulate matter. Burning wood is the main source of particulate matter emissions. In addition, heating boilers also make a significant contribution to nitrogen oxides. In Genk, Beerse and Hoboken the air is also polluted with heavy metals due to combustion processes in industry.
During the colder winter months, air pollution regularly reaches levels that can be detrimental to health. They are primarily due to the accumulation of pollutants from vehicle exhaust gases and, to a lesser extent, home and office heating systems, and industrial processes. They typically appear, during specific meteorological conditions which are when the wind is not very strong and during the thermal inversion phenomena. In the spring, a pollution peak can occur following the formation of secondary particles, not emitted directly into the atmosphere but formed on the basis of pollutants already present in the air which are mainly from traffic and agriculture during periods of winter, spreading.
As a result, the air quality deteriorates to such an extent that it poses a risk to people’s health.
With that in mind, special measures need to be taken to minimise the harmful effects of pollution highs on the environment and public health.
Pollution peak alerts are triggered by the Interregional Environment Unit. Each region defines its emergency plan, but the alert thresholds are triggered simultaneously in the 3 regions. The Brussels Region has defined additional thresholds in order to take into account its urban areas.
This emergency plan aims to raise awareness amongst motorists and amongst others too. They are encouraged to choose alternatives to the car when air quality deteriorates. This is why the emergency plan includes measures to promote mobility alternatives (in particular free access to the public transportation systems). And awareness-raising actions, while applying speed limits and reinforced control, or even a total driving ban (in some cases).
Measures on heating are also planned in the event of a peak, including the use of wood as a form of heating, and limiting the temperature of other installations in buildings in the tertiary sector to 20 °C. Private accommodation, hospitals, rest homes, nurseries and swimming pools are not subject to this obligation for obvious reasons.
One in three new cases of people who develop asthma under the age of 18 is due to the bad air quality in Belgium, according to new figures. The Independent Health Insurance Funds conducted a survey on 441,696 of their members between the ages of 2 and 18. Their results showed that the percentage of people taking asthma medication, meaning they are presumably affected by asthma, is 12.9 per cent. For comparison, the Belgian average, which also includes adults, is 8 per cent.
“This is very valuable information,” said a lung specialist at the UZ Gent hospital, who collected the data. However, not every child up to 6 years old taking medication necessarily has asthma. “During this period of the year, many children have RSV (the virus at the origin of a very common respiratory infection in infants), for which they will also receive asthma medication,” he added. Under the age of 6 years, children are not considered to be wise enough to participate in extensive asthma tests.
The figures also show that one in three teenagers who took medication for asthma in 2018 did not use it in the previous five years, indicating that they are new patients.
An American university published a study based on measurements taken in 2015, which linked the concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the air to the number of new asthma patients under the age of 18, in 194 countries. According to the study, Belgium and the Netherlands record some of the largest numbers of new asthma patients due to nitrogen dioxide.
Nitrogen dioxide is a substance that, together with PM2.5 and ozone (O3), causes air pollution, as well as pollution in the smallest branches of our airways. Nitrogen oxides are mainly released when fossil fuels are burned, in agriculture and industry but mainly in traffic.
Belgium is densely populated in certain areas and has a high volume of traffic. From a historical point of view, diesel cars have been favoured fiscally and because of the economy, they offered. However, it is now known that they emit more dangerous pollutants than gasoline-powered cars. On the other hand, there are also the motorways, along which many people live, adding that anyone living 50 to 100 metres from a busy road is at an increased risk of succumbing to respiratory diseases.
It is said that 4,000 fewer children a year would be affected if Belgium keeps its nitrogen emissions to a minimum, according to Spanish research.
From 2018, the most polluting vehicles started to be gradually banned in the Brussels-Capital Region. Certain pollutants from automobile traffic have a negative impact on health which can see an increase in respiratory disorders, a decrease in respiratory capacity, the development of bronchitis and asthma. By gradually prohibiting access to the Brussels Region for the most polluting vehicles the air quality will slowly improve.
The establishment of the Low Emission Zones (LEZ) in Brussels will allow a reduction in emissions of pollutants most harmful to health, mainly fine particles (in particular black carbon) as well as nitrogen oxides. Improving air quality will benefit everyone and will above all contribute to improving the health of Brussels residents.
The COVID-19 pandemic made 2020 a very special year for air quality. The measures during the first lockdown (March-May) had a major impact on traffic-related air pollution.
In this first preliminary analysis, air quality is discussed in 2020 based on the course of three pollutants: nitrogen dioxide (NO2), particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) and ozone (O3).
Nitrogen dioxide is a typical traffic-related pollutant. In places, with a lot of traffic, there is a direct link between the NO2 concentrations and the local (diesel) traffic. Due to the corona crisis, there was significantly less car traffic in 2020.
Immediately after the first “lockdown” took effect on 18th March, with a ban on non-essential journeys, the number of cars dropped significantly from approximately 75,000 to 30,000 per day. Traffic picked up after the first lockdown and almost approached pre-corona levels from September. From the end of October (second corona wave), traffic decreased again.
It was brought to light earlier that increasing traffic is causing poor air quality. There are many harmful substances such as fine dust and nitrogen dioxide in the exhaust emissions from cars. Fine dust is also created by the wear of the tyres and brakes on the road. This pollution is partly responsible for chronic lung diseases, heart disease and some cancers.Researchers at the universities of Oxford and Bath estimate the health costs of one diesel car at 14,700 euros for an average life of 14 years. Vans cost even more at 16,800 euros for an average lifespan of 10 years. A petrol car is less polluting and costs society 1,600 euros. These costs include absenteeism, care, medication and compensation for the lost number of months or years. According to the scientists, this is a conservative estimate. They have not included the damage to nature. The damage to health in neighbouring countries has also not been taken into account, while polluted air is also spreading beyond national borders.
Air pollution has many negative consequences for human health. Even young, strong relatively healthy people can be affected by reduced breathing capacity on days with heavily polluted air. Fine particles may end up in the airways and cause inflammation there. This inflammation can also spread to other organs. It has long been thought that air pollution mainly caused lung diseases, but recently it has been discovered that the impact on heart and blood vessels is even greater and that there are both long-term and also important short-term effects. Air pollution peaks are associated with a significant increase in the number of heart attacks.
Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of air pollution. Recent research shows that the effect of air pollution starts to play a role from conception and can be linked to the risk of premature birth, lower birth weight and already changes at the cellular level (telomeres).
Effects in the brain and cognitive functioning have also been established. Not only children are especially vulnerable, but also certain risk groups and certainly senior citizens. Recent studies show correlations between dementia and lung cancers in non-smokers. In Belgium, there is a risk of dying 9 months earlier on average, but perhaps the loss of quality of life and especially getting old sick is a worse risk.