The human cost of polluted air

Oct 08 2017 06:01
Sizwe Sama Yende

Johannesburg - Nono Nkosi* (38) has to set aside at least R1 000 every month to pay for her daughter’s medical expenses. Masesi*, who is 12, suffers from itchy eyes, sinusitis and shortness of breath.

Nkosi lives in KwaGuqa outside Emalahleni in Mpumalanga – close to power stations, steel industries and coal mines, which belch out dangerous particles that pollute the air.

Due to these emissions, Mpumalanga’s Highveld region, where more than 80% of South Africa’s electricity is generated by coal-fired power stations, has the most polluted air in the country. The area is also the hub of the steel industry.

In 2013, an EU research team found that the air in Emalahleni had some of the highest levels of poisonous gases in the world.

The levels of chromium and barium were so high, the team found, that a their instruments were unable to take accurate measurements.

Nkosi said her daughter had been sick since she was born, and doctors had advised her to move to a place with cleaner air. Masesi’s eyes are itchy and almost always watery.

This condition is allergic conjunctivitis.

“I go to doctors so many times a month because of my daughter’s health that they are now giving me a discount,” Nkosi said.

“Since she was born, Masesi has had itchy eyes. She has sinus problems and, due to a tightness in her chest, is forever coughing. Teachers said her eyesight was not good and we had to get her glasses. She uses medicine for her eyes and we’ve ordered an oxygen machine for her to use at home.”

Nkosi said that, whenever Masesi visited her grandmother in Mahikeng in North West during school holidays, her child did not suffer from these ailments.

Doctors in the area say that most of their patients have the same illnesses.

Dr Diphalong Mashifane, who has been operating his general practice in Middleburg – 30km from Emalahleni – for the past 20 years, said about a quarter of his patients suffer from asthma, sinusitis and allergic conjunctivitis.

Mashifane estimated that 25% of his patients had become ill due to the dirty air in the area.

“I’ve had a fair number of such patients. When some of these patients leave the area, their ailments improve. These conditions are caused by direct exposure to air pollution,” he said.

“When I speak to my colleagues in areas such as Jane Furse in Limpopo, they tell me that they do not have as many patients suffering from these conditions as I do. In-depth studies have proved that the air in the Highveld is polluted,” Mashifane said.

Environmental organisations have placed the blame at the door of the department of environmental affairs. They say the department has done nothing to curb the pollution. In 2007, 31 000km2 of the heavily polluted Mpumalanga Highveld region – then home to about 3.6 million people – was declared a “priority area” in terms of the Air Quality Act.

Annette Gibbs, spokesperson for the Centre for Environmental Rights, said: “The Highveld Priority Area was declared because, as the department of environmental affairs said at the time, people living and working in these areas do not enjoy air quality that is not harmful to their health and wellbeing, as required by section 24 of the Constitution.”

Lifa Mnisi (22) said that, since he relocated from Schoemansdal near Malelane to stay with his mother in KwaGuqa, his health had deteriorated.

Mnisi’s eyes also look brown and teary. He says he suffers from sinusitis and shortness of breath, which could be asthma.

Mnisi is in Grade 12, but he said he spends a week or two at home every month because of his illnesses.

“I must visit a doctor at least two times a week. I play soccer, but I cannot run for 30 minutes on the field because I end up struggling to breathe. These industries must reduce the pollution they emit,” he said.

*Not their real names

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eskom  |  pollution


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