Belgium needs to talk about air quality

Twenty thousand Belgians measured the quality of the air around them in a citizen initiative to evaluate the degree of air pollution in Belgium. The results? Bad enough to become a major topic in the current election campaign.

Marjan Justaert
Marjan Justaert De Standaard, Belgium
Source: De Standaard
Belgium needs to talk about air quality - NewsMavens
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Why this story matters:

In one out of three municipalities, air pollution guidelines are exceeded according to a grassroots science project -- perhaps the largest ever conducted -- called CurieuzeNeuzen, led by the University of Antwerp, newspaper De Standaard and the Flemish Environment Agency. Across Flanders, twenty thousand concerned citizens volunteered to measure air pollution, and their findings prove there is cause to be worried.

With local elections approaching, politicians cannot ignore the results. Green parties especially are campaigning about the problem.

Local authorities can be influential in the fight for better air, but the regional and federal powers also need to make fundamental decisions.

Some people accuse De Standaard of deliberately "influencing" the campaign, which has obviously never been the goal. We say: now that we know for a fact that all Belgians -- including those living in the countryside -- are affected by air pollution, let's discuss.

The most remarkable findings

  • Huge differences from street to street: "A majority of Flemings live at locations where the impact of traffic on air quality is limited", says Antwerp University's Filip Meysman, scientific advisor of the project. However, in a third of Flemish municipalities the European air pollution guidelines are exceeded. In one street the concentration of nitrogen dioxide in the air can be good, around the corner it can be very bad. It depends on the housing and the traffic flow.
  • Cities are champions when it comes to "street canyons": cities with small, busy streets and lots of traffic (called street canyons) obviously have a higher concentration of NO2 that stays longer above the city. It is not only Antwerp that is doing very bad -- Aalst and Bruges, two cities with historical centers -- have a lot of red points and street canyons.
  • The city of Ghent has a remarkable result, far better than the other cities. The local authorities introduced restricted areas and a circulation plan.
  • There are pollution hotspots even in the smallest towns: the lowest concentration (10.9 µg/m³ was measured in the extreme east of the region in the village of Remersdaal, in Voeren (Limburg Province). Meanwhile, the highest concentration (75.3 µg/m3) was also to be found in Limburg, at a crossroads on a busy dual carriageway in Houthalen-Helchteren.
  • Despite concentrations of NO2 being relatively low in much of prominently rural areas such as Pajottenland, Hageland (Flemish Brabant) the Flemish Ardennes (East Flanders) and the Limburg Kempen and Voeren (Limburg) there are still high pollution concentrations in the centre of some villages in predominantly rural areas.
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