particles

A lot of fine dust in your neighborhood? You will visit the doctor more frequently!

“Those who live in a neighborhood with a lot of fine dust (particles) visit the doctor more often. The more fine dust there is in the air where people live, the more frequently they go to the doctor. This is revealed in a new study by the Independent Health Insurance Funds. Also, those who live in a neighborhood with little greenery visit the doctor more often. The costs of avoidable doctor visits due to fine dust pollution are estimated at 43 million euros per year.

This study by the Independent Health Insurance Funds, in collaboration with researchers from KU Leuven, UHasselt, and the Interregional Environment Cell (IRCEL), examines fine dust pollution in Belgium. The researchers investigated the relationship between the amount of fine dust and the number of doctor visits by residents affiliated with the Independent Health Insurance Funds in 20,000 neighborhoods in our country. The study was published in the international journal Environmental Research.

Research on fine dust and green space

The general finding in the study is: the lower the concentration of fine dust in the air, the less often people go to the doctor. This doesn’t come as a surprise, says Christian Horemans, an expert in environment and health at the Independent Health Insurance Funds: ‘Fine dust is linked, among other things, to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and also has an impact on mental health.’

The 20,000 neighborhoods were divided into four groups for the study, ranging from less to more fine dust in the air. Fine dust values range from about 5 to 15 micrograms per cubic meter, while the World Health Organization recommends values below 5 micrograms. So, there are hardly any residential areas in our country that meet these recommendations. We do not exceed European standards because Europe still has a ceiling of 25 micrograms.”

In addition to fine dust pollution, the presence of green space was also examined. Here, the findings show that those who live in a green neighborhood visit the doctor less often. This conclusion supports the 3-30-300 rule that is advocated internationally, says Horemans:

“To promote health, it is recommended that from your window, you can see at least three trees, there is 30 percent tree cover in the vicinity, and you live no more than 300 meters from a park or green space.”

Avoidable costs

The impact of fine dust on health is well established. This study also demonstrates an impact on public finances by estimating the number of avoidable doctor visits and the associated costs.

Working on air quality is not only good for our health but also has a positive impact on public finances.

If every Belgian lived in a neighborhood with the lowest concentration of fine dust, the avoidable cost would amount to 43 million euros,

with more than 37 million euros covered by health insurance and nearly 6 million euros borne by the patient. “Working on air quality is not only good for our health but also has a positive impact on public finances,” says Christian Horemans. Earlier findings by the same researchers also indicated higher absenteeism from work when air pollution peaks.

Stricter European standards?

In 2021, the World Health Organization updated its recommended air quality values and lowered the permissible norm for fine dust pollution from 10 to 5 micrograms per cubic meter. Therefore, the European ceiling of 25 micrograms is five times higher than what the WHO recommends. According to a recent report from the European Environment Agency, 97% of the European population in 2021 was exposed to fine dust pollution exceeding WHO standards. The annual number of premature deaths in the EU due to fine dust is estimated at 238,000.

Allowing air quality to only meet current scientific insights by 2050 would have an unacceptable impact.

According to current ambitions, the European Commission aims to achieve WHO standards by 2050. Christian Horemans of the Independent Health Insurance Funds argues, based on this study, to do it much faster: “Allowing air quality to only meet current scientific insights by 2050 would have an unacceptable impact on society.”

On Wednesday, the European Parliament will vote on a proposal to tighten fine dust standards by 2030. The vote will determine stricter limits and targets for various air pollutants.

To be continued…