The health dangers of load shedding


Load shedding has become a way of life in South Africa as Eskom battles to keep the country's lights on. To cope with electricity demands, it has implemented scheduled power outages which, by all accounts, should continue until April 2015.

It's a nuisance and has forced all of us to prepare for the inevitable by installing back-up batteries for our alarms and keep candles and torches close at hand. But being engulfed in darkness for hours comes with a host of health risks and dangers, especially for children and the elderly. And how prepared are our hospitals and clinics? 

Download: New load shedding schedule for Cape Town 

Power outages and public health facilities

While businesses and households struggle to deal with rolling black outs, the risks it poses for hospital patients are far greater.

Electricity is essential for public health facilities so when the supply is unstable it could be fatal for patients undergoing emergency treatment, surgery and those in intensive care. Furthermore, organs, vaccines and medication that need to be refrigerated can also spoil or become ineffective.

In Cape Town load shedding has affected City health facilities in three ways, Mayoral Committee Member for Health Councillor Siyabulela Mamkeli told Health24.

"Load shedding affects the clinic reception areas." Mamkeli explained that folders take much longer to locate, folders cannot be created in the system, staff cannot print labels, staff cannot access the laboratory results electronically, and staff cannot capture the work done until power is restored.

She said another concern is fridges, vaccines and air conditioners at pharmacies. "Maintenance of the cold chain is crucial for the quality of the vaccines."
Mamkeli added that older clinic buildings have very little natural light, and that this can also be problematic during load shedding.

However, to deal with load shedding problem, all hospitals are equipped with functioning generators, spokesperson for the Western Cape Health Department Mark van der Heever told Health24.

Alternative power sources 101

"The generators are programmed to start-up automatically when there is a power failure. This immediate start-up ensures that there is no negative effect on life-supporting equipment during power outages."

Van der Heever also said that all medicines that require refrigeration are stored in specialised fridges that can maintain the required temperatures for up to 6 hours.

"At facilities where there are no generators, medication is moved to the fridges at the hospital pharmacies," he added.

Read: Load shedding killed my baby

Van der Heever said that the City's Emergency Medical Services (EMS), which provide a 24-hour medical response and pre-hospital care service to the public, also has portable generators which they can transport to facilities where required.

He also offered some tips for public to follow during load shedding.

"We encourage the public to make arrangements not to use food that became too warm and to sterilise food containers such as baby bottles ahead of time to prevent diarrhoea."

Tip: keep a two-plate gas stove at hand to boil water to sterilise baby bottles. 

How to prevent health issues during load shedding:

Keep your first aid kit close by in case any accidents happen in the dark, especially if you have children or older people living with you. See our First Aid Kit Checklist.

Dangers to health equipment

For those who suffer from emphysema, make sure that portable respirators are always charged.

Asthmatics should also keep their nebulisers charged

Anyone who uses oxygen, such as those suffering from chronic bronchitis, sleep apnoea and other restrictive lung diseases, should keep an extra oxygen tank so they can keep breathing easily.

Read: Different oxygen systems and how to use them

Power outages can also impact dialysis machines for home patients with kidney disease. If you miss a dialysis session it can lead to ‘life threatening hyperkalaemia. If you don't have alternative power sources, it would be best to arrange dialysis treatment at a hospital.

Dangers in the dark that affect all of us

Switch off all electronics and appliances during power outages. At times when power is restored there is the potential for it to come back with a spike in the voltage. Any sparks resulting from this could lead to burns and cuts and it can also damage electronic devices like computers, televisions and DVD players.

Being in the dark also can also be a health hazard for the small children and the elderly, who could trip and fall, especially when climbing stairs. Injuries resulting from falls can be as simple as ankle sprains to very serious hip fractures, which are all very common injuries for the elderly.

You should also try to avoid lifts in businesses and malls in case you get stuck in it during load shedding. This can affect people who are dependent on daily medication for high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and anxiety.

Depending on where you live and whether it's winter or summer, if the power goes so will your cooling or heating equipment. This, again, is a big problem for the elderly, homebound and young children. There is also the added fire and fume hazard of using gas or paraffin stoves to heat a room. 

Gas-powered appliances, such as generators, and charcoal or gas grills emit carbon monoxide which can be fatal if used incorrectly or the room is not sufficiently ventilated. Carbon monoxide is known as a “silent killer.” It is an invisible, odourless, tasteless gas and is highly poisonous.

Safe heating alternatives:

If you have a fireplace, make sure you have plenty of wood and keep the matches nearby.

Gas heaters are great for heating. Make sure you are stocked up with gas and heat only one room where everyone can gather together. 

Ensure all windows and doors are closed to keep the heat in.

Place extra blankets and duvets in an easy-to-reach cupboard. 

Safe cooling alternatives

Battery powered fans are cheap and easy to come buy. Invest in a rechargeable one and ensure it is fully charged at all times. Place it in or near an open window to bring fresh air in and stale air out.

Ensure windows are open and the house or room is well ventilated. Do close the curtains during the day if you know there will be load shedding in the evening to keep the house as cool as possible. 

In the olden days (and by all accounts still today), farmers would put the sprinklers (used to irrigate the fields) on the houses' roofs to cool the house down. If it's really hot, cool down the roof by spraying it with the garden hose!

If someone is really hot, put them in a cool bath or let them lie down on a wet towel.


Many people still rely on landlines for communication. If ever there was a time to add a cellphone to the household, this is it. Make sure you have emergency numbers on fast dial, and that the phone is always charged. A portable charger is also a good idea. And install a torch app on your phone. 

Have a look at this graph from PLOS detailing what we lose when the power goes out:

Read more:

First aid tips for emergencies
New load shedding schedule for Cape Town
How to survive load shedding
Load shedding killed my baby

Image: Light bulb fitting with a short candle from Shutterstock.

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