Environmental health is a right

2015-06-15 13:23
Kwezi ka Ceza

Kwezi ka Ceza (File)

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IT has been said myriad times: “You are what you eat”. This is just as true for the Earth itself. The condition of our Earth depends on what we put into it and what we exploit from it.

While South Africa covets the status of a developing country, it is far behind world standards with regards to laws regulating the quality of our soil, food, air and water. While some Earth rights activists have observed that the country seems to be many years behind in the labelling laws, multinational corporations have lobbied successfully against such labels, simply because they know that they would have to provide better food, so minimising their profits. But surely, people should come before cold cash, and quality of life must be based on the quality of food, soil, air and water?

Engagements on environmental issues with financial institutions like banks make it clear that their interest in the environment is purely commercial. Hence the responsibility to defend the Earth cannot be placed on banks or industry, the business of which it is to exploit the land. They cannot be expected to represent the interests of those who are affected by environmental degradation. The promotion of less-polluting alternatives, such as in packaging, within clearly defined time frames becomes a necessity. These could be technologically based.

Standards for technology should also exist and include the banning of incineration. There exists enough evidence that the “burn” technologies (such as incineration) result in the release of dioxins and furans into the atmosphere. Section 24 of the Constitution guarantees the right to an environment that is not harmful to health. Many dioxins accumulate in the body and give rise to diseases like cancer, endocrine disturbances, birth defects as well as infertility. There is no scientific proof that there are safer levels of pollution. Furthermore, burn technologies influence the destruction of valuable waste and resources that could retrieved. Retrieval of resources from waste is crucial and a necessary step towards eliminating waste.

In 2013, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that air pollution is responsible for one in eight of all global deaths, double the previous estimate. In its research, the WHO found strong links between indoor and outdoor air pollution and cardiovascular diseases, and classified air pollution as a carcinogenic. Dr Flavia Bustreo, WHO’s assistant director-general of family, women and children’s health, reportedly said: “Cleaning up the air we breathe prevents non-communicable diseases as well as reduces disease risks among women and vulnerable groups, including children and the elderly.”

South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs passed the Air Quality Act to enforce the maximum levels of particles that industry can release. In many cases, companies readily exceed the limits, and although there are penalties in place, they do not address the problem. Eskom requested that 16 of its power stations be given more time to comply with the act. By 2020, its fleet will have to meet stringent maximums for air pollution. But Eskom also asked that Medupi, one of the world’s largest coal power stations and its newest plant, be given until 2027 to comply. Research by Greenpeace International concluded that air pollution from Eskom’s fleet leads to up to 2 700 deaths a year because of the gases released by its plants — mercury and sulphur dioxide.

A study by the Water Research Commission concluded that the Umgeni River is one of the dirtiest rivers in the country, with recent studies showing proof of cholera, shigella, salmonella and other harmful viruses and bacteria at every sampling point between the Inanda Dam and Blue Lagoon in Durban. It further said water samples show that these viruses could infect people throughout the year from drinking untreated water, cooking with water, irrigating food crops, washing clothes, swimming or playing in the Umgeni downstream of Inanda Dam. “These observations may have serious health-care implications,” University of KwaZulu-Natal researchers Johnson Lin, Atheesha Ganesh and Moganavelli Singh warned in a report to the commission. Although many rivers have yet to be studied intensively, the UKZN researchers suggest that the Umgeni River is among the most heavily contaminated. It was chosen for the study because it is the primary source of water for more than 3,5 million people.

Given the classification of mining waste as a hazardous, more research is required. Due to its many implications, this is welcomed, as is the licensing process. Yet all the above can remain just a pipe dream, unless we can contribute collectively in effecting the law.

• Khwezi ka Ceza is a Durban-based freelance journalist and independent commentator

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