Health first: The IED cannot deprive pollution victims of their rights

In 2023, toxic pollution has become the norm in Europe, with industrial complexes illegally polluting and causing harm to people's health. The Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), which governs emissions from various industries, is being updated by EU decision-makers. However, the draft law appears to be inadequate in protecting people from pollution.

Written by

Bellinda Bartolucci, ClientEarth

Alexandros Kassapis, Youth and Environment Europe



It’s 2023 and exposure to toxic pollution is the norm in Europe.

Across the bloc, people are living in the shadow of industrial complexes that are still polluting illegally, eroding their health, and claiming lives.

This is a rights issue. An estimated 10% or more of Europe’s cancer burden is suspected to relate to pollution exposure, while EU premature deaths related to excessive levels of air pollution chart in the hundreds of thousands each year –
including minors, whose small bodies register big and lasting pollution impacts.

It’s hardly the futuristic picture we’d hoped for.

EU decision-makers are on the cusp of finalising the update of the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED). It governs the emissions of over 50,000 installations, including steelworks, chemicals and plastics facilities, coal plants and factory farms all over Europe – and it needs to be the most powerful tool to protect people that it can possibly be.

But on the contrary – the draft law looks set to blow over in the wind. From strong beginnings, we’re left with a nearly empty shell as far as people’s rights are concerned.

So what do our lawmakers need to do?

On your doorstep – what does industrial pollution
look like in Europe?

Pollution exposure is not just about isolated incidents – the reality is more insidious. From ‘forever chemicals’ to heavy metals, there are dramatic cases of chronic industrial pollution across Europe. Their impacts are startling reminders that industrial operations can cause severe illness and kill, in 21st century Europe.

There are ample examples of European workers and local residents – particularly children – being impacted by industrial pollution. A 5-year-old has died in Taranto, Italy, from a brain tumour – metal and dust particles from the local steel plant (Italy’s largest) were found in his brain. The local waters can’t be used to raise mussels because of iron dust levels.

Those living near antiquated coal plants in Bulgaria and Poland complain of stinging eyes and report respiratory ill-health. Towns near coal complexes in Bulgaria have been blanketed with air pollution for years – coal regions in the country chart the EU’s highest levels of sulphur dioxide pollution. But the government gave one of the local plants ongoing permission to pollute far above EU limits. 

The above cases were from facilities operating within the law. So it goes without saying that, at least in cases of illegal pollution, anyone suffering from its impacts should be able to go to court and stand a chance of receiving compensation for the damage – no? 

They pollute, you pay – why we need a real route to justice

If a facility is polluting beyond the limits allowed by the law, people suffering from health issues due to this illegal pollution must be able to access the courts for compensation. But the legal set-up right now makes it very difficult for anyone to hold Member States or industries to account

The European Commission has acknowledged this injustice and the new IED was supposed to fix this. The law included a new compensation right for victims of illegal pollution. But throughout the process, the real substance of this right has been systematically dismantled over the course of the negotiations – by now, it risks becoming an in-name-only gesture, which contains no actual avenue for people to access their rights.

With the current wording, negotiators have given the chop to the possibility of NGOs standing for sick people in class actions – vital given that in extreme cases, claimants have passed away before they could complete their actions. The law also relieves authorities of all legal responsibility for failing to enforce laws and therefore enabling health damages. 

People across Europe have been pushing for their rights to be reflected in the law. But pressure has been too strong and conflicting information has emerged throughout the process to derail positive lawmaking. This has got in the way of what this law is for: keeping people safe.

Youth and Environment Europe (YEE) have written to EU representatives to urge them to “prioritise health over illegal pollution” and adopt a real, functional compensation right. Along with a host of legal and consumer organisations, we highlighted that an inadequate law would fail people’s fundamental rights – the European Court of Human Rights has confirmed that harmful industrial pollution can give rise to individual compensation.

A turning point for victims of illegal industrial pollution – will lawmakers deliver?

An effective compensation right already exists in competition, data protection, anti-discrimination and consumer laws. It works for all parties involved and it ups compliance from the outset. Why should health be protected less? Contrary to industry claims, none of these types of rules have ever led to excessive litigation. In the case of the IED, only illegal polluters are exposed to the risk of litigation. Companies adhering to the rules have no reason to worry – and will actually benefit from a level playing field across the EU.

There is no justification for failing to apply it in the IED for victims of illegal pollution. This is a no-brainer.

An IED based on justice goes far beyond environmental action –  it is about helping victims on the ground. This is a major opportunity to bring back justice and finally offer protection for citizens across Europe. Missing it would be a statement by EU lawmakers that lawbreakers have officially taken precedence over people’s rights. 

Brussels should take a deep breath and consider this before they give the IED their final seal of approval.

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Health first: The IED cannot deprive pollution victims of their rights