‘Our car addiction is making us ill’
An estimated 150.000 Flemish citizens live on places where the European air pollution limits are exceeded, according to a remarkable Flemish measuring experiment, CurieuzeNeuzen (‘Curious Noses’), an initiative supported by 20.000 households.
Air pollution has decreased significantly the last few years but the quality of the air is far from good yet. The consequences are well known: traffic pollution is causing heart, lung and vascular diseases and premature death.
The European Environmental Agency (EEA) is talking about ‘particle deaths’ and ‘nitrogen dioxide deaths’: in Belgium alone 1.870 people died as a consequence of nitrogen dioxide emissions, or more than twice as much as people killed in a traffic accident (727).
Europe and the World Health Organization (WHO) are imposing NO2 emission limits of 40 mg/m3 as a yearly average. WHO says 20 mg/m3 should be the limit.
According to the CurieuzeNeuzen measurements, 3,9 million people are living in places where even the 20 mg/m3 limit is exceeded. Are they doomed to get ill? Probably not, but they have a higher risk for heart or lung diseases.
However, people don’t stay at home 24 hours a day, and that’s where the snag might be: the place where we live represents only one third of the daily amount of pollution. We get the other two thirds elsewhere, while commuting, shopping, jogging, relaxing…
Scientists already know what’s happening in the short run, but there still is a lack of knowledge about the long-term effects. They don’t know either what the impact of daily peak concentration of pollution is.
‘More exposure, more risk’
“It is obvious that there are effects”, concludes toxicologist of the KU Leuven, Ben Nemery. “The more time people spend in polluted areas, the bigger the accumulated exposure, so the higher the risk for diseases.”
In his recent book ‘Onze Lucht’ (Our Air), Wouter Lefebvre of Vito (Flemish Institute for Technological Research), has tried to estimate the cost we pay for our car addiction. Every extra kg of NO2 emissions costs 35 euro, a cost translated by illness, absence on the job, lost years of one’s life and loss of biodiversity.
Applied to the Flemish emission results, this means that air pollution (NO2, particles, suphur oxides and ammonia) costs society 8 billion euro, or 3% of GDP.
As a comparison: the transport sector represents 3,5 billion euro. So, theoretically spoken, if we would ban all polluting cars, trucks, ships, airplanes… society could win 3,5 billion euro. “It is absurd, but those figures show that discouraging the car almost always counterbalances the cost of it”, Lefebvre says.
Discourage the car
The cost-benefit analysis also brought something else into the open, Lefebrvre noticed: profits of traffic pollution are for the car sector and car drivers, expenses go to the population, a situation which could be adjusted by making users and manufacturers pay partly for the costs they create.
All these findings show the political minefield in which politicians need to decide on unpopular measures to discourage the use of the car. Yet, the pressure to do so, is increasing, says doctor Guy Brussele. “We have the necessary means to improve the quality of the air in Flanders.”