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Joburg health hazard

May 19 2014 07:27
*Mandi Smallhorne
MY EYES are red and slightly bloodshot – so much so that people tend to peer at me and ask in worried voices if I’m okay. My throat is a bit scratchy, I’ve been sneezing, and I wake up at night with a runny nose.

No, I’m not getting a cold; these are all familiar symptoms of winter in Johannesburg. I’ve been getting them every year for the past five years at least, and they seem to come earlier and get worse with each new winter season.

I paid little attention in the early years – just a passing allergic response to grasses seeding or something, I thought. Then I discovered that friends of mine who live nearby had been afflicted so badly that they had needed a course of antibiotics to deal with the infection this condition triggered.

Then I learnt that, anecdotally at least, Mogale City, which is one suburb away from my home office, bears a heavy burden of respiratory disease.

In the last decade, mining companies have been busy around here ‘reclaiming’ the mine dumps that have been an iconic part of the Joburg skyline.

Two decades back, the mine dumps formed a canyon west of the city; now one side has been largely broken down, the vegetation that kept the sand from flying away stripped and the pale naked flesh of the dump revealed, golden yellow in the autumnal sunshine.

Could this be the cause of my red eyes and runny nose? After all, the nearest dump in the reclamation process is about four kilometres from my home, as the crow flies; on clear winter days I can stand at the end of my road and watch the dust spiralling off the top of the remaining mound.

There’s little doubt that mine dust forms part of the stew of Johannesburg’s air. This bustling, lively city has been recently shown up as a place with quite shocking air quality.

A World Health Organisation (WHO) report on air quality in cities around the world (1 600 in total) reveals that Joburg is 10 times the acceptable level.

Particulate levels are measured as PM10 and PM2.5 (never mind what they mean; just look at the numbers). A few years back, the mining region around Witbank and the Vaal Triangle were declared pollution hotspots, and in the WHO tables they are referred to as ‘Priority Areas’.

The Witbank area records PM 10 at 51 and 2.5 at 24; for the Vaal Triangle it’s 62 and 32. (For the sake of comparison, Cape Town is 30 and 16 and Durban 26 and 14, still not good quality air.) Johannesburg? Ninety-eight and 51!

This represents a major health hazard for the people living and working in the big city. Air pollution is known to trigger not only respiratory disease but also inflammatory processes.

It can cause severe respiratory illness, heart disease and other things – the word cancer is often mentioned in official literature from bodies like the government’s ‘UK-air’ website in Britain.

That alone should be enough to turn us all into activists for good air quality. But what is it doing to productivity in the country’s economic hub?

A recent paper by a group of scientists who have been steadily working on air pollution effects for years, Particulate Pollution and the Productivity of Pear Packers, by Tom Chang et al (NBER Working Paper No. 19944, February 2014, National Bureau of Economic Research) looked at the impact of outdoor air pollution on workers who did their work indoors.

PM2.5 is the pollutant that readily moves inside, so they studied its effect on employees at a pear-packing factory in California, and what the operation would save if it could reduce this pollutant to acceptable levels:

We find that an increase in PM2.5 outdoors leads to a statistically and economically significant decrease in packing speeds inside the factory, with effects arising at levels well below current air quality standards. In contrast, we find little effect of PM2.5 on hours worked or the decision to work, and little effect of pollutants that do not travel indoors, such as ozone.

This effect of outdoor pollution on the productivity of indoor workers suggests a thus far overlooked consequence of pollution. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that nationwide reductions in PM2.5 from 1999 to 2008 generated $19.5 billion in labour cost savings, which is roughly one-third of the total welfare benefits associated with this change.

It really would be worthwhile, from a purely economic perspective, to put energy and funds into cleaning up our air. And from a personal perspective – well, that too.

I would love to have my clear eyes back for health reasons, but there’s no denying it would make me more productive (she says, staring with aching, bleary eyes at her screen). How we do it – well, that’s a story for another day.

 - Fin24

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own.

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mandi smallhorne  |  sa economy  |  air pollution


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