German Government Sued by Citizens over Air Pollution

Clean air is a basic human right; it is not a luxury. This is what propelled seven German citizens to sue their federal government in connection to air pollution. German government authorities did not take any action to tighten air pollution laws after the World Health Organization (WHO) implemented changes in their air quality (AQ) guidelines last year. 

Berlin’s inaction has led to more people being exposed to high levels of toxic air. An environment-focused NGO said in a statement that Germany’s residents are breathing in toxic air with pollution levels four or five times over the safe limits. The government has had no mandates or concrete plans to address the situation.

Germany’s air pollution levels have gone down in the last few years and have often been EU legislation-compliant. However, the levels are still several times higher than the WHO’s recommendations, especially since the latest recommendations have been significantly lowered. 

The claimants

The residents who sued the German government are from four of the country’s metropolitan areas: Frankfurt, Munich, Düsseldorf, and Berlin. According to them, local air pollution levels in their areas are higher than the safe limits set by the WHO. Measurements estimate that the numbers are between four and five times over the maximum levels. 

Some of the claimants are parents who are concerned for the welfare and health of their children. Others are residents who have had to deal with asthma, which is largely caused by exposure to air pollution. One of the mothers, Constanze (of Düsseldorf), said that bringing legal action against the government is equivalent to protecting her children, to ensure that they are healthy and safe. She can monitor air pollution levels near their home as she resides beside a monitoring station. 

Another claimant, Volker, who lives in Munich, said that although air pollution has been linked to thousands of premature deaths, it is not often indicated as the official cause. This does not change the fact that exposure to air pollution causes detrimental health conditions such as shortness of breath, cardiovascular issues, cancer, and stroke. 

Volker also emphasised the importance of helping people understand air pollution and how it can affect them. Although there are programs, laws, and strategies for reducing toxic air, politicians aren’t doing enough to enforce them.

The claimants have only one reason for making the claim against the government: they want the air they breathe to be clean.

What are diesel emissions?

Diesel emissions are a major contributor to air pollution. The emissions that come from diesel vehicles contain gases that have adverse effects on human health and the environment. They emit nitrogen oxide, also known as NOx, which is a highly reactive group of gases that includes NO2 or nitrogen dioxide and NO or nitric oxide. 

NOx is known to contribute to the formation of pollutants acid rain and smog. It’s also a catalyst for ground-level ozone, a pollutant that makes plants and crops weak and susceptible to extreme weather conditions. 

Researchers have also discovered that NOx exposure can affect a person’s cognitive abilities, which increases their risk of dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s disease. 

Constant exposure to nitrogen oxide emissions may trigger depression, anxiety, and other mental health-related issues. 

The claimants were also right to be concerned about how NOx emissions affect one’s health. Some of the impacts that can develop after exposure to nitrogen oxide include nausea and vomiting, asthma and other respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and emphysema, and breathing problems. If the level of exposure is high, there can be serious effects, the most common of which are vocal cord spasms, asphyxiation, chronic lung function reduction, and cardiovascular diseases. The most devastating health impact of NOx emissions, though, is premature death. 

Nitrogen oxide’s adverse effects are the reason why residents are pursuing a case against the government.

Diesel emissions scandal

The claimants may have the German government as their main target but carmakers have also been contributing to polluted air. In 2015, the Volkswagen Group was caught using defeat devices in their Audi and VW diesel vehicles that were sold to US buyers. The California Air Resources Board and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent VW a note to inform them of their emissions regulation violation.

A few years later, Mercedes-Benz also received the same notice from US authorities. Defeat devices in Mercedes vehicles in the UK and Europe have been discovered as well. Eventually, other carmakers were also implicated in the scandal, which became known as the Dieselgate diesel emissions scandal.

A defeat device can determine if a vehicle is in testing so that it could artificially lower emissions to within the WHO-mandated levels. This makes the vehicle appear clean and environmentally safe even if it emits exceedingly high levels of NOx when driven on real roads. Thus, VW and Mercedes lied to their customers.

Diesel claims

Affected car owners are encouraged to bring a claim against their carmakers in the same manner that German residents are suing their government. Before making a diesel claim, it is important to verify one’s eligibility to bring their manufacturer to court. has a panel of emissions experts who can assist any affected carmaker.

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