When the air kills thousands of people

written by Bart Jacobs and Ronny Taferner

Amsterdam is well known for its huge number of bicycles – it even has more bicycles than inhabitants. However, it is one of the most air polluted cities of Europe.

Measuring station at the Stadhouderskade, a hotspot of air pollution

Imagine you are smoking the equivalent of six cigarettes every day without being aware of it – that happens to you if you live in Amsterdam or in Schiphol. This comparison shows how serious the situation with air pollution is in Amsterdam. Every year up to 15,000 people die from the effects of air and noise pollution.

The Dutch institute for health (RIVM) acknowledges this and has been warning the government for quite some time, but so far politicians don’t seem to act. Maud Schaake knows how bad the situation is. She works at Milieudefensie, an organisation that works with the government to solve the problems surrounding air pollution. “It is really hard to talk about air pollution in general, because it’s not just one gas that is harmful to people, there are a couple of gasses that are bad for our lungs.” One of the gasses that does the most damage to our lungs are particulates, as they are very irritating to our airways. Maud Schaake says: “Particulates shorten the lifespan of people that live in big cities with almost a year”.

Particularly badly affected are the residents of the Pijp neighbourhood. It is one of the most polluted area in Amsterdam. Rita Heller lives at the Van Woustraat and she says that she never opens the windows because of the bad air in the street. “I think there are too many cars on the street, it’s really bad to live here.” Ben van der Pol lives at the Stadhouderskade and adds “I have white curtains that have become black on the top because of the fine dust. Also, a lot of trucks and tourist busses are standing in front of our house for hours.” Both are convinced that something must be changed otherwise they cannot imagine living there for the rest of their lives.

Maud Schaake

Milieudefensie believes that more investments in public transport can be the best solution to all the problems. “We want to solve it for everyone, this affects all of us, not only the people that live in cities” says Maud Schaake. According to her, governments can also stimulate the use of electric vehicles or ban scooters from city centres. Amsterdam is already working on some solutions, she says, but it can do more. “It’s good that they subsidised electric vehicles, but there still are a lot of trucks and tourist busses that pollute the city every day. It will take a lot of time and effort to solve this problem, but in the end it’s about yours and mine health.”