Air pollution kills 20 000 per year in South Africa – as many as in traffic

Air pollution kills 20 000 people in South Africa every year, costing the economy nearly R300-million. This is according to new research from the World Bank.

The research, Air Pollution: Strengthening the Economic Case for Action, concluded that air pollution kills 5.5-million people each year, making it responsible for one in every 10 deaths worldwide. That data comes from the World Health Organisation.

Five million deaths a year make air pollution the fourth leading cause of premature deaths in the world. Only smoking, obesity and dietary issues kill more people.

Writing in the research, lead author Urvashi Narain, said: “The scale of the problem is truly daunting.”

In terms of cost, the bank calculated that premature deaths cost the world economy R3-trillion in lost work days alone. Those are people that are too sick to go to work, mostly from chest problems such as asthma.


The impact of air pollution is, however, much greater when all the costs are included.

Besides the cost of missing work, people also have to spend money on staying healthy by buying things such as asthma medication. This cost is also carried by the state.

By World Bank calculations, the total cost of this to the world economy is R70-trillion a year.

Worst-hit are developing countries, according to the researchers. Over 90% of premature deaths attributed to air pollution happened in these countries, where the same percentage of the population are exposed to “dangerous levels of air pollution”.

The research looked at air pollution between 1990 and 2013, comparing the impacts of pollution in those two years.

“Air pollution is not just a health risk but also a drag on development. By causing illness and premature death, air pollution reduces the quality of life. By causing loss of productive labour, it also reduces incomes in those countries.”

Developing countries – whose rapidly growing economies translate into more pollution from coal-fired power stations and new industry – have borne the brunt of it.

According to the report, 87% of the world’s population lives in areas where the air pollution exceeds the World Health Organisation’s safe levels.

Old people and the poorest are disproportionately affected. “The poor are more likely to live and work in polluted environments, but they are less able to avoid exposure or self-protect.” The researchers said that this part of the population is then stuck, too sick to work and unable to afford medication.

The bank concluded: “Air pollution is a challenge that threatens basic human welfare, damages natural and physical capital, and constrains economic growth.”

The same logic follows in South Africa. The apartheid regime put poor, non-white people downwind of industrial sites. 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, the group’s head Bobby Peek said: “The blueprint for a black neighbourhood was a waste dumpsite, where waste from rich white neighbourhoods and dirty industry was dumped.”

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

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

Related stories

South Africa gets $4.3bn IMF loan. In return, the country must reform

The loan, which is repayable over five years at an interest rate of 1.1%, comes with various self-imposed conditions such cutting the public wage bill and rationalising support to the state-owned entities

Black lives must matter in Africa too

Although Africans must continue to support the Black Lives Matter movement, there is also the need for them to raise their voices against injustices in other African countries

We sacrifice for Covid, so we can fight global warming

We just have to ask ourselves if we are as willing to sacrifice to save our grandchildren as we have shown ourselves to be when it came to trying to save older people, the sick and the poor from Covid-19

UN special rapporteur on the environment joins local air pollution case

The state is facing a court battle about big industry’s emissions and their link to poor health. This is a public health concern and the government must take action to save lives

Editorial: Next budget must be a hot issue

We are understandably focused on this crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, that is killing people and destroying livelihoods everywhere. But we are losing sight of the other crises that destroy life

Manuel: African nations need $40bn for debt relief

International and regional finance institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the AfDB have provided emergency assistance, but there still remains a funding gap to effectively fight Covid-19
Advertising

Sekhukhune’s five-year battle for water back in court

The residents of five villages are calling for the district municipal manager to be arrested

Fees free fall, independent schools close

Parents have lost their jobs or had salaries cut; without state help the schools just can’t survive

Vaccine trial results due in December

If successful, it will then have to be manufactured and distributed

White men still rule and earn more

Women and black people occupy only a few seats at the JSE table, the latest PwC report has found
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday