Some 13-million people live in Gauteng. Every single one of those people are breathing in air that is toxic, and is shortening their lives. For the four million people in Johannesburg, that air means people die three years earlier than they would if they were breathing Cape Town’s air.
Previous Mail & Guardian reports have shown that, for at least half of the time, the air in Johannesburg is unsafe. This is thanks to a mixture of dust blown into the city, exhaust fumes from the nearly five million cars in Gauteng, fires in homes, and pollution from small industries and power plants. All of this results in tiny particles in the air that people suck deep into their lungs. There they lodge and enter the blood vessels, breaking down tissue.
The exact human toll of this has been hard to pin down. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says 20 000 South Africans die each year because of air pollution. Eskom has said its pollution leads to 333 deaths a year. Other companies don’t share the effects of their polluting activities.
There has been little local research on where these deaths happen. But clues are contained in research published late last year by the Earth Policy Institute at the University of Chicago in the United States. Researchers there created an Air Quality Life Index, which calculates how many years people lose from living in polluted areas for their whole life.
Globally, they found that air pollution from particulate matter (a measure of the tiny, hair-width dust particles that float about in the air) is the single greatest threat to human life. On average, across the world, air pollution costs each person 1.8 years of their life.
Using pollution measurements from satellites, the researchers concluded that the air in Johannesburg is the worst in the country and costs people 3.23 years of their life. The second-worst place was Sedibeng district municipality, south of Johannesburg, which includes the area where hugely polluting industries such as Sasol and ArcelorMittal are based. People in Tshwane metro municipality, north of Johannesburg, lose 2.82 years of their life living in the city.
In Cape Town, the average air pollution was recorded at 10% of that in Johannesburg — with people, on average, not losing any years as a result of the cumulative effect of dirty air.
Government, through the environment department, has promised more action in priority air pollution areas such as the Vaal Triangle and Mpumalanga where Eskom runs 12 coal-fired power plants. But action in cities such as Johannesburg is stymied by little data on who is responsible for what pollution, and too few officials to fine polluters.
South Africa’s legal limits on particulate matter pollution also allow pollution levels to be at double the levels that the WHO says are safe for human health. And large industrial polluters, including Eskom, have been consistently given exemption from complying with even these unsafe levels.