Belgium’s Low-Emission Zones: A Health Check by Mutualités Libres

Sarhan Basem
Credit: theguardian

Brussels (Brussels Morning) – Mutualités Libres, a Belgian health insurer, analyzes the impact of Belgium’s low-emission zones on air quality. Findings reveal improved air pollution levels in zones, highlighting the importance of such initiatives for public health.

Belgium’s mutual health insurers have been carrying a closer look at the country’s three low-emission zones. Dr Luk Bruyneel, a health and economics specialist at Mutualités Libres, described: “As a health insurance fund, we have to protect the health of our members. As air pollution is a major health threat, we want to contribute evidence to the discussion. Health insurance data for our 2.3 million members permits us to produce high-quality studies on health risks from air pollution.”

What Motivated Mutualités Libres to Study Low-Emission Zones?

According to the Guardian, Antwerp was the first city to form a zone in 2017. This was followed by Brussels, and then Ghent. Like London’s ultra-low emission zone (Ulez), and more than 320 projects across Europe, the Belgian zones are developed to improve air pollution by deterring the most polluting automobiles from driving on city streets.

As a vital player in Belgium’s public health care, Mutualités Libres desired to understand if the three zones had adjusted the air breathed by its members. It was not feasible to make measurements at each person’s home, so the insurer utilised a computer model to estimate street-by-street air pollution.

Bruyneel and team examined the air pollution outside the homes of 176,000 members who reside in Belgium’s 20 largest cities. Even without the low emission zones, air pollution would be anticipated to improve as older polluting vehicles were substituted with newer models. They therefore examined any extra changes inside the zones corresponding with the 17 cities with no zone.

Who Benefits Most from Belgium’s Low-Emission Zones?

Members inside the zones encountered a faster improvement in air pollution compared with those in the other cities. This revved cleaning of the air was discovered for the main pollutants from traffic including nitrogen dioxide and particle pollution.

They also peeked at soot particles. These are a significant air pollutant from the exhausts of older diesel vehicles. Antwerp and Brussels were the imperfect cities in Belgium before the zones started but this league table has now been pivoted upside down. The soot concentration around members’ homes in Brussels is lower than the standard in cities across Belgium, and Antwerp has lower engagements than the other cities in its region. After the zone, members in Antwerp also respired less particle pollution than those in other cities in Flanders.

What Insights Did Mutualités Libres Uncover About Air Pollution?

In Brussels, they discovered that the least well-off members underwent the worst air pollution, but for some pollutants, the least well-off had the most sumptuous gains. There is still a long path to go. Even in 2022, the least well-off were only relishing the air quality that the richest had in 2017.

Bruyneel said: “Air quality in Belgium is improving, but there is still a lot of work to be done to create healthy cities that people can enjoy more. Policymakers should support and embrace initiatives like LEZs to improve air quality in cities. This is not the time to press a ‘pause button’ or turn back the clock.”

Several investigations on low-emission zones around Europe and Japan have already discovered improvements in the numbers of heart attacks and strokes, and there is some proof of improvement in lung illnesses too.

Research by Mutualités Libres has already found associations between air pollution and GP and emergency room stays in Belgium. They also uncovered that short periods of high air pollution were connected to the onset of long periods off work for mental health problems.

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Sarhan Basem is Brussels Morning's Senior Correspondent to the European Parliament. With a Bachelor's degree in English Literature, Sarhan brings a unique blend of linguistic finesse and analytical prowess to his reporting. Specializing in foreign affairs, human rights, civil liberties, and security issues, he delves deep into the intricacies of global politics to provide insightful commentary and in-depth coverage. Beyond the world of journalism, Sarhan is an avid traveler, exploring new cultures and cuisines, and enjoys unwinding with a good book or indulging in outdoor adventures whenever possible.