Concern over air monitoring gaps

2019-06-24 12:33
Smoke from a factory in Ohrtmann road.

Smoke from a factory in Ohrtmann road. (Ian Carbutt)

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Well, neither does anyone else it appears, according to reports from the municipality.

Last year, the city’s air was rated the worst in the province, but technical faults in the city’s air-quality monitoring stations have left gaps in the current data about hazardous gas, so it’s impossible to say how bad things are.

The stations collect information on potentially hazardous gases, wind speed and direction, ambient temperature, pressure, humidity, rainfall and solar radiation. 

Msunduzi says the levels are in compliance with the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), but admit that there have been times when levels of toxic gas, including ozone, have exceeded the recommended limits.

Air quality reports sent to Weekend Witness by the municipality show gaps in its data, with some gas levels having no data at all, according to air quality specialist Andrew Simpson.

He said: “In respect of the information provided by Msunduzi, the March monitoring results were out of peak pollution season, which occurs during winter (May to August).

“Unfortunately, this leaves us with little to comment on results provided at this stage, as they are not in the peak pollution season and there are many gaps in the data owing to technical instrument faults, as reported.”

Residents in Maritzburg have complained for years about nasty smells and potentially toxic emissions from factories in the city and fires at the municipal dump. Some even took to The Witness Facebook page this week to comment on the city’s air quality, with one resident saying: “Most residents near the dump are on asthma pumps.”

Msunduzi Municipality has four monitoring stations, with another owned by the KZN Department of Environmental Affairs.

The stations are at Northdale Hospital, in the city hall parking lot, at the Pietermaritzburg Airport and in Edendale on Herschensonn Road.

Simpson said that at the station at the city hall, only one of three gas analysers produced results in March. These were for carbon monoxide (CO). The sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) analysers were both out of action.

At the airport station, only two out of the three machines checking for particle matter (PM10) and ozone (O3) reported compliant concentrations.

“Results from the SO2 analyser are reported, but appear to be faulty. The results do not make sense,” said Simpson.

“PM10, SO2 and NO2 are typically considered the most important criteria pollutants. Of these, only PM10 data is available for Pietermaritzburg Airport and there is nothing valid from either station for SO2 or NO2.”

The view of the city from Clarendon at midday on T

The view of the city from Clarendon at midday on Thursday.

In June last year, The Witness reported that Pietermaritzburg had the most polluted air in the province, alongside South Durban, Richards Bay, Estcourt and Newcastle.

One of the key reasons for this is that the city is shaped like a bowl and traps air, instead of letting wind distribute the pollution.

Cool air is trapped by a layer of warm air, which acts like a lid trapping pollutants in the cool air near low-lying areas.

According to University of KwaZulu-Natal agrometeorology Professor Mike Savage, the city has a high concentration of industry within low-lying residential areas, where wind speeds are generally lower than high-lying areas, and pollution is therefore not dispersed.

He added that the extent of air pollution experienced by residents depends mainly on wind speed and direction, and temperatures.

Msunduzi Municipality spokesperson Thobeka Mafumbatha said that air quality is a priority for the city, adding: “All AQMS (air quality monitoring stations) are functional. Data is collected, validated and used to compile monthly air quality reports per station.”

Mafumbatha said the municipality completed a baseline air quality assessment during 2018 and is also developing an Air Quality Management Plan (AQMP). A draft report will be released for public comment within the next week. “The air quality network will continue to expand depending on the budget available,” she said.

Gases that pose a risk to health

According to Environment Protection Authority Victoria, the following gases have the following health effects.

  • Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is an irritant that attacks the throat and lungs. Prolonged exposure can lead to increases in respiratory illnesses, including chronic bronchitis.

The main sources of sulfur dioxide are coal-fired power stations, the smelting of aluminium and other metals, and exhaust fumes from diesel vehicles.

  • Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is known to affect the throat and the lungs. In levels encountered in polluted air, people with respiratory problems, particularly infants, children and the elderly, may be affected.

The main source for the gas in urban areas is the combustion of fossil fuels, including petrol, diesel and coal.

  • Carbon monoxide (CO) when inhaled displaces oxygen in the blood and deprives the heart, brain and other vital organs of oxygen.

Very high amounts of carbon monoxide in the body can result in oxygen deprivation, leading to loss of consciousness or death.

This colourless and odourless gas is found in smoke, exhaust fumes from cars, petrol and gas engines, gas ovens, generators and gas and wood heaters.

  • Particle matter (PM2.5) is small enough to be breathed deep into the lungs.

Children, people over 65, pregnant women and people with existing heart or lung conditions are more sensitive to its effects. Symptoms include wheezing, chest tightness and difficulty breathing.

The particles come from burning coal, organic matter (wood and grass), rubber, plastic, cars, power plant emissions and bushfires.

  • Ozone (O3) can occur near the ground where we breathe. It is very reactive, affects the linings of the throat and lungs, restricts air passages and makes breathing difficult.

Ozone also increases the risk of respiratory infections and places the elderly and those with existing lung disease at risk of health problems.

  • PM10 can irritate the eyes and throat. People with existing heart or lung conditions (including asthma) can experience an increase in symptoms, including wheezing, chest tightness and difficulty breathing. 

Most polluted city in KZN last year

In June last year, The Witness reported that Pietermaritzburg had the most polluted air in the province, alongside South Durban, Richards Bay, Estcourt and Newcastle.

This was according to a provincial environmental outlook report that was released by the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs in June 2018.

The 275-page report focused on climate change, air quality management, biodiversity and other issues.

The report stated that the transport sector is a significant and growing polluter, while industrial and commercial emitters, biomass burning and domestic fuels burning are ongoing concerns.

Air quality that was measured at three monitoring stations in the city also revealed that sulfur dioxide levels exceeded safety limits, while high dust fallout in Mkondeni was cited as another concern.

Unpredictable climate conditions continue to be a problem in the province, with the report predicting generally drier conditions and droughts more likely to become more frequent and more intense.

Water scarcity, land scarcity, and the quality of human life and ecological systems are identified as the potential environmental “tipping points with the likelihood of further deterioration” over time.

Municipal air quality unit suffers significant staff shortage

Msunduzi’s air quality unit is operating with a large number of staff vacancies. Only 11 out of 33 posts are currently filled.

The municipality has one trained and appointed air quality officer and a deputy air quality officer, while another five environmental health practitioners have been trained on air quality management.

Municipal spokesperson Thobeka Mafumbatha said compliance inspections at industries in the city over the past two years were done and that 120 factories were issued with non-compliance notices.

She added that the municipality receives, on average, 10 air quality complaints per month.

“All complaints are investigated. Compliance notices are issued when necessary and further legal action and engagements will be taken when necessary,” Mafumbatha said.

The environmental health unit issues around 250 summons per year, which includes those for air quality management and contraventions.

“Fines range from between R1 000 to R10 000 per summons. A small percentage of these are related to air quality,” Mafumbatha said.

She added that the unit opted not to rely on and enforce local by-laws on industry as the fines are too low.

Enforcement penalties, in terms of the air quality act, carry a maximum fine of R5 million and/or imprisonment of five years, or both for a first offence.

Pietermaritzburg residents took to The Witness Facebook page recently to comment on the city’s air quality.

Trish Collocott said: “We have suffered for years with certain industries and the mismanagement of the dump polluting our air. We have the right to breathe clean, unpolluted air and it is the responsibility of local and regional government to monitor and remove culprits.”

Palesa Lucylu Tshezi posted: “Sobantu residents suffer the most. We have become a joke in the city because people from other townships always say Sobantu stinks. I am just worried about the effects this smell will have on our health. Something must be done.”

Michele van der Merwe added: “It’s disgusting and most residents near the dump are on asthma pumps.”

Businessperson Ali Engelbrecht, who lives in Howick but works in Pietermaritzburg, said: “Coming into Pieter­maritzburg in the mornings is like hitting a wall of pollution and toxicity. During the day my eyes start to burn.”

The City dump

There has been a fire at the New England Road municipal dump almost every year since at least 2010. In that year, The Witness reported a “massive fire” at the municipal landfill site, which was condemned by environmentalists who said it released toxic emissions into the atmosphere.

Musa Chamane, of environmental group GroundWork, said in the article that the fire had released toxic emissions which could lead to complications like asthma and respiratory diseases.

In 2017, another fire at the dump saw several Pietermaritzburg schools close their doors until the smog and stench had disappeared.

The New England Road dumping site has long been a source of concern for environmental groups who claim the municipality is failing to maintain it properly.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  air pollution

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