'Rotten egg' gas suffocates SA

Air pollutants resulted in 795 000 'restricted activity' days a year because of health issues. (Lisa Skinner)

Air pollutants resulted in 795 000 'restricted activity' days a year because of health issues. (Lisa Skinner)

Air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels kills 300 people a year in South Africa’s major cities and hospitalises a further 119 000. Statistically, every South African loses 67 working days in his or her lifetime as a result.

If emissions were reduced, R13-billion could be saved in healthcare costs annually, according to a report from 2004.

In winter, our major cities are blanketed in a thick layer of smog and several, such as eMalahleni in Mpumalanga and parts of Durban, have some of the worst air quality in the world.

The drivers of this pollution are coal and wood fires in homes, and fumes from transport, industry and power generation. These emit a poisonous cocktail of gases such as hydrogen sulphide (the pungent “rotten egg” gas) and nitrous oxide. 

Little large-scale research has been done on air pollution and its impact on health in the country.
Often when reports are done, they are kept in-house. A rare example is a 2004 report by Airshed Planning Professionals for six government departments to help them determine the sources of air pollution and ways to mitigate it. However, no publicly available research has been done since then and the population has grown by five million people.

Wood and coal
The report found that the burning of wood and coal in people’s homes was responsible for 69% of the health problems caused by air pollution. In 2004, this cost the health system an estimated R1.1-billion a year. Currently, this would be more than R2-billion. Two-thirds of all pollution-related deaths were also due to burning wood and coal in homes.

The report said vehicle emissions were responsible for 7% of all deaths and electricity generation for 5% of premature deaths.

Eskom produces more than 90% of the country’s power from coal-fired power stations.

Two reports, also done by Airshed, that the state-owned enterprise was forced to release this month, said that its power stations in Limpopo and Mpumalanga killed 20 people a year. This could reach 600 when its extended fleet of 16 power stations were up and running, it said.

Eskom’s response to this was that electrification would decrease the health problems caused by burning coal and wood in homes, and should be a priority.

The 2004 research supported this. According to a cost-benefit calculation, it said desulphurisation of power stations was “not feasible from a financial and economic perspective”. This would come at a “considerable cost”, although it would generate 8 000 jobs. 

Poisonous gas
Sulphur dioxide is the most prevalent gas released by coal-burning power stations and, according to South Africa’s national standards, it is poisonous. It chiefly affects the upper respiratory tract and bronchi, with larger doses entering the blood stream. This leads to long-term health problems such as bronchitis and chronic asthma. Sudden and extreme exposure leads to a person’s breathing system shutting down to protect itself and they would require emergency hospitalisation. It also has a significant impact on vegetation, slowing growth, impairing photosynthesis and lowering crop yields, according to the national standards.   

Coal contains a mixture of metals that are damaging to human health when they accumulate. Six thousand children were predicted to be exposed to annual lead concentrations that would lower their IQ. In the broader population, 7.7% of people were exposed to annual lead concentrations above legal limits due solely to pollution from the burning fossil fuels, the research said.

Besides the hidden costs, air pollutants resulted in 795 000 “restricted activity” days a year. Over the lifetime of each economically active South African, this would mean 67 days lost because of health problems caused by fossil fuels, the 2004 report said.   

In its solutions, the research said cutting emissions in households was the priority. This could be achieved by electrification, installing more efficient stoves, or by using alternatively technology like gel fuels. 

If only these “economically justifiable interventions” were implemented, 98 fewer people would die each year and R10-billion would also be saved on healthcare.

Another R375-million would be saved by people not dying prematurely and increased productivity would add up to R2-billion a year to the economy. In the most optimistic scenario, 11 000 jobs would be created and R13-billion would be saved in healthcare costs to the state.

Hard to quantify
But, with little data available, the research said it was hard to quantify the impact on industry. In 2004, companies were not required to submit the extent of their emissions.

The biggest ones still claim they cannot because they have to protect the secrecy of their operations. But, thanks mainly to the drive to lower greenhouse gas emissions, these are being compiled for the environmental affairs department.

The research said the impact on human health from industrial sources was probably much higher than it had predicted.

New air quality legislation has been passed that requires industry to lower emissions to caps set by the environment department. But Eskom has asked for rolling postponements for its whole fleet that would see it only comply with the 2010 legislation during the next decade. Sasol, several mines and other large factories have applied for similar exemptions.

This article previously referred to the “rotten eggs” gas as sulphur dioxide. We regret the error, and have rectified it.

Sipho Kings

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