More than 1 billion euros in health damage due to aircraft noise around Brussels Airport, environmental group says

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New study work commissioned by Belgian environmental group Bond Beter Leefmilieu (Union for Better Environment) shows that the health damage caused by aircraft noise is seriously underestimated. The health costs for local residents would amount to more than 1 billion euros annually. Bond Beter Leefmilieu and the civil associations around the airport are calling on Flemish Minister Zuhal Demir to include a binding path towards low-noise and CO2-neutral operation in the new airport environmental permit. The health and quality of life of local residents must be key, the group says.

36,000 euros in health damage per night flight

Commissioned by Bond Beter Leefmilieu (Union for Better Environment), the engineering office ENV-ISA has calculated how many people suffer health damage due to aircraft noise around Brussels Airport. The calculations show that on an annual basis, 220,000 local residents are highly inconvenienced by the noise from the aircraft and that the sleep of 109,000 local residents is seriously disturbed. 51,000 people are also at a strongly increased risk of developing high blood pressure and 2,000 people are even at a strongly increased risk of heart disease.

These figures come as no surprise to Marc Goethals, cardiologist at Onze-Lieve-Vrouw Hospital in Aalst. “Our body reacts autonomously to noise, day and night, because our body subconsciously associates noise with danger. As a result, our body goes into a state of defence, the so-called ‘fight-or-flight response’. This leads to an increase in blood pressure, a faster heartbeat and the release of stress hormones.”

The World Health Organization has been warning for years about the enormous health damage experienced by people living near airports. Epidemiological research shows that we are also extra sensitive to noise at night. Cardiologist Marc Goethals explains: “Repeated exposure to night noise disrupts essential functions of our sleep, even without us consciously waking up. This leads to reduced immunity against infections and cancer, slower physical recovery and it affects our memory functions and our mental health.”

ENV-ISA has calculated that sleep disturbance, blood pressure problems and heart disease cost our society at least 1 billion euros on an annual basis. This means an average of 36,000 euros in health damage per night flight. This is still an underestimate since the costs of medication and hospitalisation are not included.

Brussels Airport is guilty of negligence

Despite the major impact of the flight noise on the health and quality of life of local residents, the airport operator fails to take additional measures. What’s more, the airport’s federal ombudsman, Philippe Touwaide, has revealed that certain conditions of the 2004 environmental permit have still not been implemented. Also in the context of the new permit application, the airport operator shows little ambition, according to Jasper Wouters of Bond Beter Leefmilieu: “Brussels Airport Company claims to focus heavily on sustainability and quality of life for local residents. In practice, they mainly invest in solar panel parks and electrifying ground traffic. But that does not lead to less aircraft noise at all. And the effectiveness of the differentiated take-off and landing charges they levy – whereby loud aircraft have to pay more – has never been demonstrated.”

On the other hand, the airport operator is making serious profits year after year. Jasper Wouters of Bond Beter Leefmilieu: “In the period 2016 – 2019, the profit to be appropriated amounted to an average of 93 million euros per year. This profit largely flows abroad since Brussels Airport is 75% owned by foreign pension and investment funds. So as a company, we pay for the costs of the airport while the financial benefits are largely channelled away from our country.

Minister Demir holds the key to the airport of the future

Bond Beter Leefmilieu has worked out a plan for the future of Brussels Airport together with the 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, according to Jasper Wouters of Bond Beter Leefmilieu: “We have discussed our future plan with many parliamentarians and with the cabinet of Minister Demir. All our interlocutors 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 a time-bound process with binding conditions towards low-noise and CO2-neutral operation of the airport in the new environmental permit. The health and quality of life of local residents must be central to this.

Click here to consult the ENV-ISA study.

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