The Flemish Federation for a Better Environment (Bond Beter Leefmilieu) and citizen movements around Brussels Airport are calling on Flemish Environment minister Zuhal Demir to investigate the health risks to people living near the airport, and to include in the new environmental permit a binding path towards low-noise and CO2-neutral operation. Brussels Airport is due for a new environmental permit and according to the Federation, it seems like not only the enormous nitrogen and CO2 emissions are causing health problems.
Bond Beter Leefmilieu has brought the issue to the attention of the Minister after a study conducted by ENV-ISA showed that the health damage caused by flight noise has been severely underestimated. The health cost for local residents would amount to more than 1 billion euros on an annual basis.
Our body reacts autonomously to noise because we unconsciously associate noise with danger.Marc Goethals, cardiologist at Onze-Lieve-Vrouw Hospital
At the request of Bond Beter Leefmilieu, ENV-ISA calculated how many people suffer health damage as a result of the aircraft noise around Brussels Airport. The calculations show that, on an annual basis, 220,000 people living in the neighborhood are strongly affected by aircraft noise and that the sleep of 109,000 people living in the neighborhood is seriously disturbed. Also, 51,000 people run a greatly increased risk of developing hypertension and 2,000 people even a greatly increased risk of heart disease. Brussels Airport is due for a new environmental permit.
“Our body reacts, day and night, autonomously to noise, because our body unconsciously associates noise with danger,” Marc Goethals, cardiologist at the Onze-Lieve-Vrouw Hospital in Aalst told Bond Beter Leefmilieu. “Our body goes into a state of defense, the so-called ‘fight-or-flight’ response. This leads to a rise in blood pressure, a faster heart rate and release of stress hormones.”
The World Health Organization has been warning for years about the enormous health damage experienced by those living near airports. Epidemiological research shows that we are also extra sensitive to noise at night. “Repeated exposure to night noise disturbs essential functions of our sleep, even without waking up consciously,” Goethals told Bond Beter Leefmilieu. “This leads to reduced immunity against infections and cancer, slower physical recovery, and it affects our memory functions and mental health.”
ENV-ISA has calculated that sleep disruption, blood pressure problems and heart disease cost our society at least 1 billion euros annually. Per night flight, this means an average of 36,000 euros in health damage. This is still an underestimate, as it does not include the costs of medication and hospitalization.
The effectiveness of the take-off and landing fees whereby loud aircraft have to pay more, has never been demonstrated.Jasper Wouters, Bond Beter Leefmilieu
Despite the major impact of flight noise on the health and quality of life of local residents, the airport operator fails to take additional measures. The airport’s federal ombudsman, Philippe Touwaide, has revealed that certain conditions of the 2004 environmental permit have still not been implemented.
Even in the context of the new permit application, the airport operator shows little ambition. “Brussels Airport Company claims to be heavily committed to sustainability and quality of life for local residents,” said Jasper Wouters of Bond Beter Leefmilieu. “They mainly invest in solar panel parks and electrifying ground traffic. But that does not lead to less aircraft noise at all. The effectiveness of the differentiated take-off and landing fees they levy – whereby loud aircraft have to pay more – has never been demonstrated.”
Bond Beter Leefmilieu has worked out a future plan for Brussels Airport together with residents’ groups. This plan aims to significantly reduce the health and environmental damage caused by air traffic, without affecting employment and the accessibility of our country. And the politicians are listening to this plan.
“We have discussed our future plan with many members of parliament and with Minister Demir’s cabinet,” Wouters said. “All our discussion partners largely shared our concerns about the health damage caused by the airport and its air traffic. We therefore also call on Minister Demir to include in the new environmental permit a time-bound trajectory with binding conditions towards a low-noise and CO2-neutral operation of the airport. The health and quality of life of local residents must be central to this.”
According to the Federation, the airport operator has made substantial profits year after year. “In the period 2016 – 2019, the profit to be appropriated averaged 93 million euros per year,” said Wouters. “This profit largely flows abroad since Brussels Airport is 75% owned by foreign pension and investment funds. We pay for the burdens of the airport while the financial benefits are largely siphoned off from the country.”