/ 2 November 2018

World’s children bear the brunt of toxic air

Gagging: Schoolchildren in Jambi
Gagging: Schoolchildren in Jambi, Indonesia, are released from school because of excessive air pollution. (Wahdi Setiawan/Reuters/ Antara Foto)

The World Health Organisation (WHO) lists air pollution as one of the biggest burden on health.

Every day, 93% of the world’s under-15 population breathes in air that is “so polluted that it puts their health and development at serious risk”, says the WHO.

This amounts to 1.8-billion children. The health organisation says, in 2016, air pollution killed 600 000 children, and it is responsible for one in 10 deaths of children under the age of five.

Describing air pollution as an “invisible killer”, the organisation released its research during its first global conference on air pollution and its health effect, held this week.

The invisible killer is felt in many different ways. A branch of the United Nations, the WHO says that, when pregnant mothers breathe polluted air, they are more likely to give birth prematurely and have stunted children.

Children are affected more by air pollution than adults because they breathe more rapidly, so they take in more dirty air. They are shorter, so they are closer to the ground, which is where pollutants sink down to. In poor homes, children live near to other sources of pollution such as coal and wood fires, used for heating and cooking.

All these pollutants harm the mental development of children. This means they do worse at school and find it harder to get ahead in society. It also increases their chances of developing health problems such as asthma, which makes competing in sports harder — or impossible.

READ MORE: Mpumalanga tops world nitrogen dioxide air pollution charts

The problem is felt in both developing and and developed countries, but it is much worse for children in poor countries. The WHO’s research shows that 98% of children under the age of five in low- and middle-income countries are exposed to toxic air compared with just 52% in high-income countries.

Analysis: South Africa

Figures for the effect of air pollution in South Africa are hard to come by. But, by extrapolating from the global statistics compiled by the WHO, which itself makes broad, approximated findings, it seems probable that air pollution kills 20 000 people in this country every year.

What kills them is a mixture of pollutants, from coal-fired power stations to emissions from vehicles, dust on the Highveld and anything else that causes small particles to fill the air.

Business refers to this damage as an “externality”. It is the cost that society picks up on behalf of companies that have not done everything they can to reduce their air pollution. In the case of Eskom, this externality means people who live near power stations contract asthma and other chest problems because the utility has delayed its compliance with air quality legislation.

The Mail & Guardian has previously reported on the utility’s own studies, which show that its air pollution kills at least 20 people and hospitalises 25 000 each year. That number, according to these calculations, will jump to more than 600 deaths a year when the giant coal-powered plants Medupi and Kusile begin operations.

It is near-impossible to obtain similar studies from high-polluting private companies such as Sasol. The M&G spoke to doctors and nurses who work near factories, power plants and mines who said these industries definitely make people sick. People who live nearby know this to be true but the health department has declined requests for this data to be released to the M&G.