We’ve done the sums and can reveal: Air pollution causes 53 000 deaths a year in SA

Air pollution kills 53 000 people in South Africa every year. That costs the economy half a trillion rand in lost potential and healthcare.

These numbers come from a Mail & Guardian calculation. Their base is sound. Organisations, from the United Nations to the World Health Organisation (WHO), have used similar calculations in other parts of the world.

Want to build a new coal-fired power plant and need a World Bank loan? Well, the human and healthcare costs have to be tallied up. This is how we know indoor air pollution kills 4.3-million people a year globally, and that outdoor air pollution kills 3.7-million people a year.

A network of air quality monitoring sites means we know that South Africa’s three biggest metros – and industrial and mining towns such as Emalahleni – are among the world’s most polluted places.

These numbers are rarely made public – and then only begrudgingly. Telling people that cold cal- culations have to be made for new projects, for which the overall benefit is weighed against the cost in sick and dead people, is a hard sell for politicians.

There are lots of small numbers for air pollution that come from environmental impact assessments. But even these give only a passing mention to air pollution in their public versions. Take, for example, the impact assessment for the realignment of Cape Town International Airport’s second runway, which says the “risk of health effects from air pollution” is “low” but gives no data for what low means.

In 2014, the Centre for Environmental Rights was given Eskom’s impact assessments for its coal-fired fleet in Mpumalanga and Limpopo. This followed a Promotion of Access to Information request. The Mpumalanga assessment said: “Current Eskom power stations are cumulatively calculated to be responsible for 17 nonaccidental mortalities per year and 661 respiratory hospital admissions.” These figures jumped to 617 deaths and 24 842 admissions to hospital when the utility’s full fleet was accounted for.

When the M&G asked for these numbers, Eskom refused, saying they were of “limited use”.

The same assessments said, overall, air pollution in Mpumalanga killed 550 people a year and hospitalised 117 200. Burning wood and coal in homes for cooking and heating was responsible for half of these, with Eskom responsible for 3%.

Licence to Kill, a Greenpeace Africa report, also published in 2014, calculated that by delaying compliance with new air quality legislation the utility would cause 2 200 premature deaths a year.

But these figures do not solve the main problem: a lack of national studies that look at the impact of air pollution. Which brings us back to the M&G calculation.

South Africa has 53-million people. A generally accepted figure for developing countries is that one in 100 000 people die as a result of exposure to air pollution. This has been shown to hold true for developing countries such as India and China. It can therefore be inferred that 53 000 people die every year because of air pollution in South Africa.

The WHO estimates that the cost of a life is 100 times the gross domestic product per capita of a country. For South Africa, that stands at just under R100 000 a person. With 53 000 deaths a year, that means air pollution costs the economy more than R500-billion a year.

This includes the cost of chronic medication for asthma, hospital treatment, lost productivity, children unable to perform at school, adults deemed unfit to work, and the cost to families of losing a breadwinner.

What is killing people? In broad strokes, apartheid and capitalism. The previous dispensation gave large industries operating permits, under the authority of the air pollution control officer. This office had eight employees and there was little by way of law to support progressive decisions. That meant big factories and power stations went up, with nonwhite workers living downwind. Democracy has done little to change this situation.

In its 2014 investigation titled Slow Poison: Air pollution, public health and failing governance, nongovernmental group groundWork said: “People are still polluted and made sick by this pollution.” Writing in that report, Bobby Peek said: “The blueprint for a black neighbourhood was a waste dumpsite, where waste from rich white neighbourhoods and dirty industry was dumped.”

The M&G visited Settlers Primary School in south Durban in 2014. It is located downwind of the city’s ports and refineries, and 52% of the children have asthma. This story is repeated in similar air pollution hot spots such as Sasolburg and Vanderbijlpark.

The environment department – tasked with fixing the problem – says progress has been necessarily incremental. Few regulations existed before 1994.

In a report to the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, the department also noted: “There is an extremely limited specialist air quality management human resource base.” There was also little “detailed research to understand and address the specific contribution of industrial air pollution”.

Yet the department’s annual “state of air” reports say that air quality in “hot spots” has been improving. An overhaul of air quality regulations also came into effect last year. There just aren’t any numbers for what effect this has had on the statistical estimate of 53 000 deaths a year.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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