“Air – you breathe it every day without even thinking about it. Why then should you all of a sudden bother about the invisible gas you fill your lungs with? Aren’t there other more urgent and important things to worry about in life?” This is what I used to think when confronted with the topic until last month when I unexpectedly became witness of a rather unusual scene: a large group of children were protesting together with their parents in the middle of a street on a Friday morning.

30 MarchSource of picture: Filter Cafe Filtre: https://www.facebook.com/filtercafefiltre/

What topic could these children be possibly protesting about at their young age? What was so important that they arrived  this early before their actual lessons? Why were these (pardon my German colloquial expression) “Hosenscheißer” out there?

Waiting for the bus to arrive, I decided to quickly run across the road and to find out what was going on there. Annekatrien Verdickt – the parent in charge of the protest on the scene – kindly explained to me that they were blocking the busy school road that day in protest against air pollution at primary schools. The parents’ ultimate goal is to achieve an acceptable level of air quality (max. nitrogen dioxide limit of 20 μG/M³) for their children in all schools across Brussels.

16 MarchSource of picture: Filter Cafe Filtre: https://www.facebook.com/filtercafefiltre/

This strange Friday morning scene remained stuck in my mind for some time now. I couldn’t simply hop on the bus, plug in my earphones and immediately forget about it all afterwards (although I got a lot of other things on my mind…). Anyhow, if this bunch of busy parents and their children thought it was such an important topic to invest their time and energy in, how can I – how can anyone – possibly just turn their back on them and simply walk away?

After all, doesn’t this topic concern all of us in some way or another? You may have younger siblings or nieces and nephews that are still going to school. And don’t forget, you may also have a family of your own at some point in the future. And when the moment comes in which your conscience is clouded by dark worries about dangerous fumes affecting your vulnerable child, you would want others to take an interest in the issue of air pollution too, wouldn’t you?

Demo
Source of picture: Filter Cafe Filtre: https://www.facebook.com/filtercafefiltre/

Background information

So what can be done then? First of all, lift the “smoky veil of ignorance” by adopting a clearer more informed view on the topic! The protest described above followed the publication of an eye-opening study run by a non-governmental environmental organisation. Here’s a short three-point summary of Greenpeace’s study report My Air, my School:

 

  • The study finds that “The quality of the air in about 60% of Belgian schools is worrying and even poor, while only 3% are considered to have good air quality”, p.14

 

  • The study is based on the scientific work of the specialized laboratory “BuroBlauw” which  measured the  level of nitrogen dioxide (NO²) in and around 222 Belgian primary schools  (17% of which are based in Brussels) over a period of appx. 2 months (11/2017 – 12/2017)

 

  • The campaign is supported by numerous public associations and research institutions (including: the League of Families, the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) school of public health,  BRAL – a city movement striving to make Brussels more sustainable and the Flemish Association for Respiratory Health and the Fight Against Tuberculosis (VRGT))

 

NO2 levels

Source of picture: https://secured-static.greenpeace.org/belgium/Global/belgium/report/2018/SchoolMonitoring-Summary-FR.pdf

Brussels Pollution by Area

Source of picture: https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-employees-rise-up-against-toxic-air-pollution-emissions-health-air-quality/

 

What’s worrisome, the  Clear the Air for Children 2016 publication by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) finds that air pollution “reduces the improvement in cognitive development among school children” and can lead to “lower attendance rates in school” as well as “lower academic achievement rates” (p.30). According to UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake, “pollutants don’t only harm children’s developing lungs (making them more vulnerable to asthma and bronchitis, for example) – they can actually cross the blood-brain barrier and permanently damage their developing brains – and, thus, their futures”. In UNICEF’s report, three key sources have been introduced that are worthwhile mentioning here :

 

  • The European Commission’s 2015 study report which finds that green spaces are linked to improved cognitive development in schoolchildren because of lower traffic-related emission levels. (According to Politico, Belgium is unfortunately said to be among 12 countries breaching EU air quality standards on nitrogen dioxide.)

 

EU Capital's Particulate Pollution

Source of picture: https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-employees-rise-up-against-toxic-air-pollution-emissions-health-air-quality/

 

  • The American Psychological Association states that “Over the past decade, researchers have found that high levels of air pollution may damage children’s cognitive abilities, increase adults’ risk of cognitive decline and possibly even contribute to depression.”  (emphases added)

 

  • The Royal College of Physicians (UK)’s 2016 report explains that “Because the central nervous system is still developing rapidly after birth, children remain susceptible to harmful effects of air pollution on their neurodevelopment and long-term cognitive health. Several types of air pollution have been associated with harmful effects on neuro-cognitive development, (…) impair(ing the child’s) cognitive development and lower(ing its) IQ (…) Children exposed to high indoorNO² levels (…) have been shown to have poorer cognitive function and seem to be at increased risk of ADHD.”

 

Brussels demo with masks

Source of picture: http://welovebrussels.org/2017/02/pollution-air-quality-brussels/

 

What’s more, children can suffer a higher risk of developing asthma, allergies, pulmonary infections and cancer later on in life because of exposure to air pollution at a young age (source: My Air, my School). According to the  World Health Organisation (WHO), 1 in 9 deaths worldwide are caused by air pollution. Answering the title of this article: Can air pollution at schools affect children’s health and academic performance? The answer to this rhetorical question is self-evident: of course, it can! So what can be done then?

 

Time to take action!

ManifestSource of picture: Filter Cafe Filtre: https://www.facebook.com/filtercafefiltre/

 

“It’s absolutely necessary to put in place urgent measures (in order to tackle air pollution)”, Greenpeace spokesperson Juliette Boulet exclaims (quote loosely translated from French into English). In the abovementioned study, her NGO recommends setting up so-called “school streets” (traffic free zones) and promoting cycling paths, especially near schoolyards and entrances of school buildings. As for the spokesperson of the campaign described at the beginning of this article, Annekatrien Verdickt has already announced that “We (the parents) want to quickly repeat this action, thereby amplifying it” (quote loosely translated from French into English).

The campaign continues successfully and indefatigably: The first protest took place on Friday the 16th of March at the primary school Maria Boodschap in Brussels. The second one followed only a week later (23/03) and involved 5 schools in total. The third wave of protest grew to an impressive participant figure of 43 schools spread across many Belgian cities, including: Brussels (23), Antwerp (10), Ostend (4), Ghent (4), Vilvoorde (1) and Lichtervelde (1). According to the organizers, several more protests are to take place until the local elections in October 2018.

 

Maria Boodschnap
Source of picture: Filter Cafe Filtre: https://www.facebook.com/filtercafefiltre/

 

Are you a concerned parent? Feel free to visit the campaigners’ site  and to get involved in future actions! The peaceful protests usually involve blocking the busy road to the school by having a cup of coffee and a chat with other concerned parents (Filter Cafe Filtre), whilst allowing ones children to playfully demonstrate and occupy the road.

Are you an interested citizen? Feel free to share relevant social media content and/or to write a blog entry about this topic! You can also share your opinion and experience on this issue by leaving a comment on the site.

Take action by taking a walk or using the public transport system more often! There are also handy city bikes which you can rent for a modest fee all across Brussels. Seize the opportunity, grab a bike and become more active!


Visit useful sites, keep yourself informed:

 

Read more articles about the topic in French and English:

 

Sources:

European Commission, ‘Science for Environment Policy: Green spaces linked to improved cognitive development in schoolchildren’, European Commission DG Environment News Alert Service, 2015.

Greenpeace (Belgium), “Mon Air, Mon Ecole” (My Air, My School), report published 2018.

Politico, see link to article: https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-employees-rise-up-against-toxic-air-pollution-emissions-health-air-quality/

Royal College of Physicians, ‘Every Breath We Take: The lifelong impact of air pollution’, Royal College of Physicians, February 2016.

UNICEF, “Clear the Air for Children”, report published 2016.

Weir, Kirsten, ‘Smog in Our Brains: Researchers are identifying startling connections between air pollution and decreased cognition and well-being’, American Psychological Association Monitor on Psychology, vol. 43, no. 7, 2012, p. 32.

World Health Organisation, “First Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health” to be held in 2018.

 

 

 

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