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Belgium’s health council recommends ban on night flights

14:54 12/05/2024

Belgium's superior health council (CSS) has called for a ban on all night flights to improve the health of people living near Brussels Airport.

“At least 160,000 local residents in the Brussels Airport area are at increased risk from exposure to excessive noise levels,” the CSS said.

“The Conseil Supérieur de la Santé is therefore recommending a ban on night flights between 23.00 and 7.00.”

The CSS found that in addition to noise, air pollution also plays a role in negative health outcomes for people who live near the airport.

“Several studies show that, in the short term, emissions of ultrafine particles, which are characteristic of aircraft, mainly lead to a reduction in lung function and changes in heart rate,” the council said in its report.

“In the long term, they are linked to an increase in cardiovascular disease, but also, for example, to difficulties during gestation, such as lower birth weight.”

The CSS examined the effects of night flights on the health of local residents at the request of federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke, amid a decades-long legal battle between residents and the airport over noise pollution.

“There is no future for an airport in this densely populated region, which only thrives on significant night-time activity,” Vandenbroucke said in reaction to the report.

“[Yet] linked with this nocturnal activity is also employment, often for short-skilled people for whom jobs are not easily found. Work and health need to be balanced. Achieving this balance will be a crucial task for the next federal and Flemish governments.”

The health council found that night flights have tangible effects on health, with the potential to cause sleep disorders, high blood pressure and learning difficulties in schoolchildren. Research also shows that noise pollution can have a negative impact on mental wellbeing, increasing the risk of depression.

“The council also suggests developing and using additional noise indicators that focus primarily on the frequency of aircraft overflights and their noise levels at each overflight rather than average noise levels,” the CSS said.

“The regions should agree on this. Existing noise standards should be lowered to meet World Health Organisation standards. In fact, these values constitute the threshold above which damage to health occurs.”

It also calls for more studies specific to the situation in and around Brussels, warning that exposure to ultrafine particles around the runways, particularly to the north-east, is too high.

“The concentration of flights early in the morning and in the evening should therefore be reduced,” the CSS said. “In general, an increase in the number and frequency of flights is not desirable.”

But the CSS emphasises that action should not be delayed until such further studies are completed, saying the government should act now.

“In the meantime, the council advocates transparent and fair communication between the government, the airport and local residents on health impacts versus other interests,” the report added.

Federal mobility minister Georges Gilkinet (Ecolo) said in a response to the report that “Brussels must not become the noise bin of Europe”.

Brussels Airport said it does not wish to comment on the issue at the moment, but Liège Airport’s spokesperson, Christian Delcourt, explained that night flights are critical for certain airports.

“We are a cargo airport,” Delcourt said. “At night, we receive aircraft carrying express mail, e-commerce and parts that absolutely must be delivered in the morning. So it's very important in our business model to deliver on time to companies, and to do that we need night flights.”

Nevertheless, Liège Airport’s night flights have decreased year on year and now account for 30% of the total flights.

Appeals can still be lodged against the new operating permit Brussels Airport was granted by the Flemish government at the end of March, which is for an unlimited period. The permit does not ban night flights, but does provide for a significant reduction in noise pollution by 2032.

The Brussels authorities have until 13 May 2024 to lodge an appeal against the new permit. The Walloon government has already announced that it will do so and so have several communes in Walloon Brabant.

Written by Helen Lyons