Joburg’s worsening air quality is putting residents’ health at risk 

The indoor burning of wood and coal in countries like South Africa contributes to poor air quality. (File photo)

In the past 30 days, Johannesburg’s air pollution has reached the highest level since 2018. According to the South African Air Quality Index, the average PM2.5 concentrations have been at 72 micrograms per cubic metre. 

This is almost five times higher than the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended maximum air pollution index of 15 for 24 hours. In addition, the WHO advises that such high levels of air pollution not be exceeded more than four times a year. But Johannesburg has exceeded this limit every day in July. 

PM2.5 is fine particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometres. These are considered to be dangerous to human health because they are small enough to pass from the lungs to the bloodstream and severely impact other organs. 

Johannesburg and surrounding provinces such as Mpumalanga and Free State experience high levels of air pollution regularly due to coal mines and power stations. But this past month has been worse.  

According to the data produced by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, there is no single cause of the high air pollution. However, adverse weather conditions in winter, extensive use of electricity and burning fires, natural dust and road dust contributed to bringing about a mixture of different cancer causing pollutants in the air.

John Nyambi, chairperson of the South African Institute of Environmental Health in Gauteng, emphasises that clean air is a human right – living in poor air quality is a violation of this right. 

“Exposure to these dangerous pollutants at such a high scale can lead to severe health problems, including heart and lung diseases, dementia, fertility problems, reduced cognitive ability, and premature death.”

Cycles of ill health

Poor air quality accounts for seven million  premature deaths globally. The data for South Africa is unknown. However, a 2017 study, commissioned by the environmental justice advocacy organisation groundWork, estimated that 2,239 human deaths per year could be attributable to coal-related air pollution in South Africa, as well as more than 9,500 cases of bronchitis among children aged six to 12 years old.

“It’s a painful way to die because the post mortem report will attribute the death to natural causes, but looking at where a person has lived and worked, and the air quality they were exposed to can be significantly important in identifying their cause of death,” says Nyambi.

Thandile Chinyavanhu, climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Africa, adds that combustion processes which release sulphur dioxide (SO2) into the air – such as burning fossil fuels such as coal – also release other pollutants. These include fine particulate matter and greenhouse gases which contribute to global heating and drive the growing climate crisis.

“People with pre-existing health conditions, as well as children and the elderly, are more vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution on their health. In areas where air pollution is particularly bad, children, for example, are more likely to miss school due to asthma and other respiratory complaints.”

Missing school has huge impacts for families living in poverty and in working class communities. Chinyavanhu says usually families experiencing constant exposure to poor air quality then have to decide whether to buy medicine or buy food, or they have to make a call on whether to skip work to attend to their sick children. 

The impact of poor air quality on health in the long-term can lock people into cycles of ill-health.

Hold the government accountable

Nyambi says that it is unfortunate that communities that are most vulnerable and exposed to poor air quality cannot do much about it at an individual level. While legislation in the country exists to guide air quality standards, implementation continues to be lagging. 

“Telling people to stay indoors to avoid air pollution is impractical because people have to go to work and school – they have to live their lives.”

Therefore, people need to report this. 

“Lay a complaint to the relevant departments in the government and don’t get tired of laying complaints. Refer to organisations like Greenpeace and the Centre for Environmental Rights to assist. The South African Human Rights Commission is also a platform which community members can use to report”, Nyambi advises.

Chinyavanhu agrees that the actions individuals can take are very limited. It is the South African government’s responsibility to take decisive action to fasttrack a just transition to renewable energy. 

“They have been slow to act. If the government continues to allow big polluters to exceed emissions limits, the efforts of civil society, community members, and individuals will be futile,” she says. 

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