On an air pollution scale, anything between zero and 20 is safe to breathe. At 300 things are labelled ‘airpocalypse’. In Midrand, Gauteng, pollution levels regularly hit 1 000. Sipho Kings used data, a bicycle and a helicopter to see just how bad the air is.
It’s midnight on a weeknight in February, before the cold snap of autumn throws a toxic blanket over the highveld. I’m in a helicopter that’s circling a factory complex in Midrand, that rapidly growing area of gated communities, industry and established townships between Johannesburg and Pretoria. The grid pattern of these areas play out across the horizon thanks to the dull yellow street lights of affluent suburbs, and the excessive light of floodlights in Tembisa.
Everything else is swallowed up in an otherwise inky-black night. Over 100 000 people live in the immediate vicinity. The helicopter’s crew are hunting air pollution with a thermal air pollution camera. A small but heavy machine, it spits out results on a screen that lights up the cockpit — much of Midrand is painted in a white that means little pollution. The smoke from the factory complex is a dark black funnel on the screen. The night is still. Warm. So the funnel goes straight up into the sky. On windy nights, and in winter, it gets trapped and sits over people’s homes as they lie in bed breathing deep lungfuls of air in their sleep.
Factories tend to do their worst polluting at night — something I’ve found out from communities living near factories around the country. At night you can smell the rotten egg of sulphur dioxide, but you can’t see it. The camera and helicopter are from SkyBee, a company that invested in tools for testing for air pollution but couldn’t find anyone willing to use their data — even the companies that they have documented releasing excessive pollutants.
Some pollution is fine. Factories get an allowance of how much of different pollutants, like that smelly sulphur dioxide, that they can release. Bigger factories have taller smokestacks that sends their pollution high into the sky where, in theory, it dissipates over a wide area and has less of a health impact. But smaller factories and workshops have smaller smokestacks. Many are also unregulated, so release deadly pollutants at ground level. With more and more factories and offices using diesel generators, this is also a source of largely unregulated air pollution.
The SkyBee camera picks all of this up. It’s so good that the evidence could be used in court — be that by the environment department, or civil society groups. The department is working on this kind of technology but relies on air pollution sensors on the ground, which cannot say who is responsible for what pollution. For now, the small number of enforcement officials are spending their time chasing down big polluters, such as ArcelorMittal, Sasol and Eskom. This means that the factories we fly over can escape consequences for their pollution.
In Midrand, these factories, as well as the increasing number of people burning wood and coal as the price of electricity soars, are creating a toxic soup.
To get an idea of the numbers involved here, the Mail & Guardian has partnered with a Paris-based startup, Plume Labs. It takes a mix of data from ground sensors and satellites to paint a picture of air pollution. The main pollutants are PM 2.5 particles (as thin as a strand of human hair), PM 10 particles, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.
Plume ranks the levels of these on its own index, between zero and 300. Zero to 20 is healthy air. Up to 50 is healthy for most people but not for people with problems such as asthma. By 100, breathing polluted air for extended periods of time means dirty pollutants lodging in your lungs and breaking you down from the inside out. The World Health Organisation says this pollution kills seven million people a year — 20 000 in South Africa. And even if it doesn’t kill you, it’s breaking down blood vessels and your lungs. That makes everyone more susceptible to other health problems, like cancer.
At 300, the index stops. The air is rated at ‘airpocalypse’ levels; extended exposure is killing you. For Midrand, Plume shares 17 months worth of data, covering January 2018 to this May. Pollution is measured every three hours and makes up nearly 4 000 data points for each pollutant.
The levels of PM 2.5 go as high as 1 051 — 52 times the safe level of 20 — and they do this on 3 902 of the 3 946 data points. The levels of PM 10 go to 935 and go over the safe 20 level on 3 712 occasions. Sulphur dioxide levels are over 20 on 2 422 occasions.
On the night that we’re in that helicopter, the level of PM 2.5 peaks at 1am at 224. Levels of PM 10 go to 201 — where exposure for more than an hour does permanent damage to your airways.
This means that people in Midrand are consistently breathing toxic air.
By coincidence, I got to try this out two weeks ago, with a bike race next door to the very same factory that we circled around with an air pollution camera. Getting there in the morning means driving towards the rising sun, with its rays scattered in clouds of pollution particles. The smell alone points to a mix of burnt wood, coal, car exhausts and heavier, industrial chemicals. At the race, I strap on a personal air quality sensor to my shirt, next to where I’m breathing. Also made by Plume, it tells you what you’re breathing and does it accurately. The dust thrown up by hundreds of bicycles sends PM 2.5 and PM 10 levels over 100.
Luckily, I can’t see the results as I suck in deep lungfuls of air, trying to balance coughing constantly with getting enough oxygen to pedal harder. At the end of the race, as exhausted cyclists splay out on the floor, the amount of nitrogen dioxide — from the nearby road and the hundreds of cars now making their way away from the bike race —heads into dangerous levels.
This is all on top of what is already toxic air.