Polluted Pietermaritzburg?

2008-06-23 00:00

Although some local doctors believe that air pollution in the city causes health problems, a local expert and city father believe air pollution is “not as bad as people may think”.

The worst period for air pollution is winter because of temperature inversion, which causes pollution build up. Polluted air is trapped in the valley and cannot disperse as it does at other times, because the cold air cannot rise through the warm air above it. These conditions cause the city’s well-known brown haze. From about June to August, there is a daily period, from about 8 am to 11 am, when atmospheric conditions and peak-hour traffic combine to create a peak in pollution concentration that increases to as much as 10 times the typical levels. It mostly disperses later in the day.

A local medical practitioner, who may not be named for professional reasons, said: “Air pollution increases and allergies also increase — do the maths. The number of patients I see suffering from allergies is definitely growing generally, and is worst in winter. There are more infections in winter, but pollution is also worse in winter. Allergies include asthmatic conditions, hay fever and sinus problems. The age of patients is also changing as this used to be an adult thing but I see more and more children suffering from allergies. In the past three to four months I have seen an enormous number of people with allergies.”

Dr Rouen Bruni, a homeopath, said: “With the increased pollution caused by temperature inversion we see a huge increase in the number of patients we treat with allergic conditions like asthma, rhinitis or hay fever, sinusitis and pharyngitis.”

A paediatrician said that it had been scientifically proven that diesel could trigger allergies and cause lower respiratory tract inflammation such as asthma. Other chemical pollutants act as irritants that can cause upper and lower respiratory problems. Although respiratory infections increase in children and the elderly in winter, this cannot be linked to pollution as there may be other variables at work, like increased virus activity.

According to Andrew Simpson, an air quality scientist with the consultancy, WSP Environment & Energy, “There are areas of concern and times of concern that are problematic. If we can minimise these episodes, air quality in the city is actually quite good for most people, most of the time.”

Andrew Layman, chairman of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business (PCB), said: “This city has a bad reputation for respiratory problems like asthma, but in some instances, the air quality is not as bad as people think, or as bad as it looks.” To prove it, this winter the PCB will monitor air quality around the city and publish the results each week. “We aim to educate people about air pollution because many have an impression that is not based on fact. In the past, business alone was blamed, but motor vehicles actually create much of the city’s air pollution. The national air quality legislation has brought this environmental issue into the foreground and business is now required to make sure it does not pollute the air.”

Simpson says: “Industry’s relative contribution to air pollution has declined nationally in respect of criteria or common pollutants. It is not perfect, but definitely decreasing as industries react to pressure and clean up their production processes.” Of vehicle pollution he says: “Renowned publications have reported that motor vehicles cause more than half of air pollution globally. Traffic in this city is a huge source of pollution that probably supersedes industry, especially as it is emitted close to ground level from thousands of vehicle exhausts. An example of a traffic pollution ‘hot spot’ is the area from the Liberty Midlands Mall to the intersection of Chota Motala and Willowton roads in Willowton.”

The legislation Layman referred to is the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act, No. 39 of 2004 (AQA). Although not yet promulgated, Simpson says the standards it sets on air quality are based on best international practice and should become law by October. Until this happens, it is the rather outdated Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Act (APPA) that governs air pollution matters.

The Msunduzi Municipality is the authority responsible for enforcing the legislation and monitoring air quality in the city. It is assisted by the provincial and national authorities: the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs (DAEA) and the national Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. The municipality’s Environmental Health Unit has an air quality team responsible for air quality within the municipal area. With the DAEA, it owns and operates a network of monitoring equipment, which is used to test criteria pollutants around the city. The unit’s report for November 2006 to October 2007 reveals the kind of problems and limitations that hamper its work: inadequate funding, equipment failure and lack of adequate skilled personnel. It also shows how complex the issue is and why it is difficult to say exactly what is in the air and what effects it could have on people’s health.

Clive Anthony, the municipality’s pollution control co-ordinator and air quality officer, commented that: “Air quality is a dynamic phenomenon that changes constantly, not only due to emission sources, but is also affected by meteorological factors such as wind direction, wind speed and temperature among other factors.”

Simpson says: “Preventing air pollution at source is the first prize, but where emissions are unavoidable, they should be minimised and managed to make use of the natural dispersion mechanisms in the atmosphere.”

What is in the air we breathe?

Air quality tests the municipality did last year showed:

• Nitrogen dioxide – during certain months the annual limit was exceeded by 100%. A municipal report blames motor vehicle emissions because the test site was near the N3 in Hayfields. This is the reddish-brown, pungent gas partly responsible for the brown haze over the city. Environmental NGO groundWork says long-term exposure “increases susceptibility to viral infections such as flu”.

• Sulphur compounds like hydrogen sulphide — from the New England Road landfill site, and Darvill waste water works. Tests show levels of this above standards for air quality and odour. This caused bad smells reported widely last year.

• Benzene — defined as “carcinogenic”, released by burning landfill site. When it burnt for several days in 2005, groundWork tests showed very high levels of benzene. Cyril Naidoo, manager of the landfill site blames fires on “tip pickers” who collect items off the dump and burn them nearby to collect saleable components like scrap metal from rubber tyres. These fires can set fire to the dump, which also burnt in winter 2007. Naidoo believes the municipality has solved problems that contributed to fires.

• Particulate matter (PM) — a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets in the air less than or equal to one sixth the diameter of a human hair. GroundWork says long-term exposure can lead to marked reduction in life expectancy and lung cancer. Clive Anthony says raised PM levels during winter are caused by veld and landfill fires. Andrew Simpson adds: “These are often natural visible pollutants, such as wind-blown dust, but man-made particles are generally more harmful to human health.”

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