Air pollution Brussels hits socially vulnerable people hardest

Air pollution Brussels hits socially vulnerable people hardest

VUB research shows that they suffer more from harmful particulate matter due to living and working situation

The most socially vulnerable groups face higher concentrations of air pollution and are also more susceptible to its negative health consequences. This is the conclusion of a study by the VUB Interface Demography research group. The team led by Prof. Dr. Sylvie Gadeyne examined  the impact of the living environment on health and mortality in Brussels. "Regarding the results, we call on policymakers to work together, to focus on the source of the pollution and to inform the population about the health risks," says researcher Charlotte Noël.

The damage to health and well-being caused by air pollution is considerable. One of the most harmful pollutants is particulate matter (PM2.5). The most common health effects of exposure to PM2.5 are respiratory and heart diseases. In addition to a considerable direct health cost, air pollution also creates numerous social and economic costs through, among other things, the loss of healthy life years, medical costs and reduced productivity.

The health of socially vulnerable people is more at risk

A team within the research group Interface Demography, led by Prof. Dr. Sylvie Gadeyne, mapped the relationship between air pollution and mortality in the Brussels-Capital Region. The researchers paid particular attention to the role of social background factors. They linked population data such as socio-economic situation and mortality to concentrations of outdoor air pollution measured using data from the Interregional Cell for the Environment (IRCEL-CELINE).

The study found that the higher concentrations of particulate matter in Brussels are mainly found in the poorer neighbourhoods. The data also show that the mortality risk from exposure to higher concentrations of air pollution is higher in poorer neighbourhoods compared to the richer neighbourhoods. An increase of 5µg/m3 in the concentration of PM2.5, for example, results in a 16% increase in the mortality risk in poorer neighbourhoods compared to 7% in the richer neighbourhoods.

The higher concentrations of particulate matter in the poorer neighbourhoods are mainly explained by the structure of the neighbourhoods, with many narrow streets and less greenery, as well as by the infrastructure of many motorised transport. The living and working situation also contributes to the increased mortality risk. Socially vulnerable people tend to live in low quality housing with poor ventilation and insulation and they often work in jobs that are performed in public spaces (bus drivers, street sweepers, ...) leading to higher exposure to air pollution. These unfavourable living conditions, such as poor housing and working conditions, financial stress, unhealthy food reinforce the negative effects of air pollution on their health.

The researchers conclude from their study the need for a policy in which air pollution is part of public health. Since pollution does not respect borders, it is also important that the different levels cooperate intensively. The problem of air pollution also requires intensive cooperation between different policy areas.

"Our research also shows that people's knowledge of the air quality surrounding them and the impact of this air quality on their health is limited. The government could better inform and raise awareness among the population about the health risks of air pollution. Again, prevention is better than cure. Once pollution is present, effective protective measures are limited," concludes Charlotte Noel.

The godfathers of this research project are Bruxelles Environnement, the Brussels Capital Health and Social Observatory and BRAL. More info on

The research was funded bij Innoviris.



Charlotte Noël

Interface Demography, Department of Sociology

02 614 81 32

Project website with policy letter:



BRAL - Citizens Action Brussels

Tim Cassiers

BRAL employee for air quality and mobility

0476 449 223

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