​Air pollution drives mental trauma

The air that they breathe kills about 20 000 South Africans each year. The number of those who struggle to breathe, sleep and exercise as a result of air pollution is unknown but international research indicates it is likely to be millions of people.

In addition, most of South Africa’s air quality monitoring stations, confined to the major metros, do not work. That means decisions are made and implemented without knowing the effect the resultant air pollution has on people’s health and mental wellbeing.

New research from the University of York in the United Kingdom, has tried to tackle this. The work — titled Can Clean Air Make You Happy? — found that nitrogen dioxide is “significantly and negatively related to life satisfaction”.

Breathing the gas has the same effect on people’s quality of life as ending a relationship, or having their partner or close family member die.

Nitrogen dioxide is emitted in great quantities by diesel vehicles and coal-fired power stations. Nitrogen dioxide gets trapped in urban areas, and forms a blanket over rural areas. In cities, tall buildings, walls and roads ensure that the gas from car exhausts is funnelled and concentrated. People walking or running down these funnels then breathe the gas in, sucking it deep into their lungs. The gas inflames the lining of their lungs, reducing immunity to lung infections. It exacerbates other conditions such as colds, bronchitis and asthma. And it increases the chances of cancer.


Air pollution tracking by Nasa has shown that Johannesburg and the Pretoria area have the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide in the southern hemisphere.

The report found a correlation between how unhappy people felt and how much bad air they breath.

When people see themselves as being in poor health, the negative effect of being exposed to nitrogen dioxide is compounded — mentally. The research says: “Nitrogen dioxide has a more substantive negative relationship with the life satisfaction of individuals who regard themselves as being in relatively poor health, as opposed to those who classify themselves as being relatively satisfied with their health.”

That finding carries with it serious implications for poorer South Africans who live downwind coal-fired power stations and have little effective access to healthcare.

It also means every person living in urban areas has their quality of life reduced by the vehicles driving around them. This is either directly through inhaling nitrogen dioxide and becoming sick and depressed.

To reach their conclusion on the effect of nitrogen dioxide, the research team took the findings from research on life satisfaction, done in the UK, and overlaid it with data on air pollution.

Similar data is not available in South Africa. For starters, air quality monitoring stations are located in large urban areas. Then, they either do not work or are inconsistent and do not give a data record from which any conclusions can be drawn.

In eThekwini, air quality pollution monitors had not reported data since 2013, according to the environment department. This is despite the port and petrochemical plants releasing toxic gases over residential areas south of Durban.

There is also little research into air quality in South Africa. In 2014, the Mail & Guardian published a rare report that had been commissioned for Eskom on the effect of its coal-fired fleet. Mostly based in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, these stations were predicted to kill 617 people a year when fully operational. A further 24 842 people would be admitted to hospital each year. The utility has consistently refused to answer questions about this data, but the research said most of the deaths would be as a result of sulphur dioxide pollution.

Diesel vehicles, the other major source of sulphur dioxide emissions, make up 20% of the South African market but there is no research into their effect on air quality. Data from the World Health Organisation for 2016 showed that Hartbeespoort has the worst air quality in South Africa, followed by Pretoria and Johannesburg. In those three cases, the levels were double that recommended as safe by the organisation.

The University of York’s work is part of a growing field of research into the psychological effect of broken environments. Previous research has shown that living near green areas improves mental and physical wellbeing.

At the moment, findings like these are not used in decision-making. The researchers said: “Unfortunately, environmental amenities often do not have prices and will therefore be typically underprovided by the market.”

So, a green area that might suck up nitrogen dioxide emissions and give people clean air will still be replaced by an apartment block because that block creates tangible profit. Fixing people’s health creates benefits that are hard to track, but still save the state in healthcare costs.

The researchers said more of this kind of work is needed: “In order to provide a clear rationale for environmental management and regulation, it is important to calculate how much value people attribute to environmental features.”

This research could start to nudge development decisions in favour of those that lead to better lives for people. 

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

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