Breath, death and data: The air in our cities is killing us

In Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Bloemfontein and Cape Town, the air people breathe is often so dangerous that it is killing them. This air affects the health of everyone, from unborn babies to healthy adults and pensioners.
Conservative estimates put the death toll at 54 people a day.
In this ongoing series, Sipho Kings looks at how dirty the air is, who is to blame and what is being done about it


You need to get out of a city to look back and see the blanket of yellow, brown and red toxic air that covers it. This makes for dramatic photographs. But the mix of chemicals, dust, car exhaust fumes, burning firewood and hundreds of other pollutants is overwhelming the lungs of people living there.

In Johannesburg, this air is bad enough to be dubbed “airpocalypse” 15% of the time — and it stays above safe levels for half of the year.

This data on what you breathe has long been kept a secret, shared only between polluters and regulators.

That’s changing. The South African Air Quality Information System has a website (saaqis.environment.gov.za) and an app that provides data for all working government pollution monitoring stations.

It shows results for areas, such as Soweto, by means of a face emoji — green and smiling for healthy air, red and frowning for “very unhealthy” air. Weeknights in Soweto this week showed sad faces.

But this data is only useful if you live near the station. People, desperate to know what they’re breathing, are increasingly turning to a host of apps that combine data from ground-based monitoring stations with the ever-present sensors on satellites.

These show pockets of air pollution drifting across the country, and they give results for your street.

To dig into what’s really happening, the Mail & Guardian has been given data by Plume Labs, a startup that builds portable air sensors that combine with satellite data to tell people about the air they breathe.

The data runs from January 2018 to this May, covering the major metropolitan areas with readings taken every three hours. This makes up nearly 4 000 data points per city across the 17 months. Plume has built its own index for the air quality that it measures: zero is clean air and 300 is airpocalypse.

The higher the number, the less time people can spend breathing it in before it starts to make them sick. It needs to be under 100 to be safe.

READ MORE: Midrand’s ‘airpocalypse’ a reality with toxic air

For a family living in Soweto, for example, everyone at the dinner table is breathing in polluted air.

The children, fresh from school sports activities where the heavy exertion means they breathe dirty particles deep into their lungs, could develop asthma.

The parents, who commute to work, breathe in fumes from vehicles. The family members then struggle through illness because they cannot afford to go to hospital.

At dangerous levels, the particles this family breathes in lodge in their airways, lungs and blood vessels, breaking them down. Any pollutants attached to the particles then start to poison them.

This can start in the womb, leading to childhood cancers, impaired mental and motor development, behavioural disorders, stunted growth, increased risk of respiratory disease and even death.

The World Health Organisation says air pollution kills more than seven million people a year, making it a bigger killer than malaria or HIV. At least 20 000 of these deaths happen in South Africa.

The numbers

Particulate matter (PM), with some particles as fine as a human hair (PM2.5 and PM10), is the total mix of solid and liquid particles hanging in the air. It’s the dust you can see when a weak ray of light shines through the window in your home.

Because they are so tiny the particles are in the air for longer and are easily inhaled by humans and animals. In Johannesburg, Plume measured the levels of particulate matter as high as 1 115, nearly four times what it qualifies as airpocalypse.

The level of these pollutants was above 100 nearly half of the time in the 17 months covered by the Plume data set. This means that on any given day, the air in a 40km-radius of South Africa’s biggest city was dangerous for about 12 hours.

In Pretoria, the highest level of particulate matter was 1 007 and was also at dangerous levels half of the time.

Durban hit levels of 1 283, and passed the safe 100 mark a quarter of the time. Levels in Cape Town rose to 972, and were over 100 for a quarter of the time. In Bloemfontein, levels rarely exceeded the 200 mark.

Levels of specific pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide, ozone and nitrogen oxides, were at much lower levels but consistent exposure to these also affects health.

In a presentation about air pollution in the Vaal Triangle — an intensely polluted area in southern Gauteng where the apartheid government stacked its most polluting industries and their workforce — the national environment department went with the title: To Breathe or Not to Breathe.

Who is to blame?

This mix of pollutants comes from everyone. Large polluters, such as Sasol and Eskom, attract the greatest pressure from civil society groups — a Constitutional Court challenge was launched earlier this month because of the consistent levels of pollution in Mpumalanga’s highveld. The president was cited as a respondent.


South Africa is still dependent on coal for generating electricity even though it is the most polluting of fossil fuels. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

But air pollution is a bigger story than that. It also includes people who can’t afford electricity and need to burn coal and wood in their homes — something the recent Eskom price hike has exacerbated. Half of air pollution deaths come from this indoor pollution.

Service delivery failures result in people burning waste that isn’t collected — and protests over these failures also release toxic pollutants, especially when tyres are burnt. If the biggest polluters were to decrease their pollution, levels of dangerous toxins would still be too high — the cumulative effect of all the smaller polluters, individual people included, is considerable.

The 2004 Air Quality Act allowed government, through the national air quality officer, to set limits for each pollutant. The first such step came into effect in 2015. But Eskom and other polluters applied for exemptions. Those exemptions are signed off at a local government level, where districts such as Nkangala, in Mpumalanga, don’t have the resources to thoroughly examine pollution transgressions.

Those exemptions were meant to give companies until 2020 to comply with the law. But Eskom and its peers are submitting new applications for exemption.

Officials at the environment department say they have to be realistic about this — the department has little political clout and wouldn’t be able to force state-owned entities, or big private companies, to comply with the law unless it happens gradually.

In practice this means the air Act is largely ignored. In its 2014 report into the first round of applications — titled Slow Poison: Air Pollution, Public Health and Failing Governance — Pietermaritzburg-based nongovernmental organisation groundWork criticised this approach. It said: “Government tends to follow a ‘compliance strategy’ of negotiating with offenders in preference to prosecuting them.”

The consequences

Little has changed since then. This is borne out in the numbers. To catch polluters, government relies on its Green Scorpions, the environmental management inspectors. There are just 2 600 Green Scorpions to cover the whole country and most of them focus on conservation enforcement.

The unit’s 2017/2018 annual report said it had made 926 arrests for environmental offences — just 53 had resulted in convictions by the National Prosecuting Authority.

There are also untouchable sources of air pollution. The M&G has spoken to Green Scorpions who investigate factories linked to politically connected officials and have seen their work go nowhere.

There is also a near-total ignoring of air pollution problems by the mineral resources department. Mines cause huge problems as a result of blasting and the constant movement of heavy machinery, which all throw up dust pollution.

Frustrated officials say attempts to discuss this are ignored. And changes to legislation have put oversight of environmental issues at mines with the minerals department.

This frustration extends to the health department, which has the data that could build a national picture of the effect of air pollution.

The environment department has asked the health department to include respiratory illness in the communicable diseases register. This would reveal pollution hotspots and allow the government to start getting a grip on the true cost of air pollution. But, for now, the data stays in individual clinics and hospitals, in hard copy.


It is not only large plants and factories causing dirty air. People burning firewood in their homes or tyres during protests are also to blame. (David Harrison/M&G)

Citizen action

With the state only slowly improving things, the conversation about air quality has exploded on WhatsApp and Facebook. Groups share anecdotes about pungent smells and the subsequent headaches, sick children, emergency hospital visits and suspicions over what is to blame.

The M&G often sees these conversations as part of investigations into other environmental problems. In Cape Town and Durban, they revolve around refineries. In Bloemfontein the focus is on an incinerator. In Gauteng it’s smaller factories, mine dumps and waste dumps that get people posting.

Some of these groups have tried to collect information and create their own data. The M&G has seen one example where a person used reports of smells to piece together a map of where the pollution could be coming from. In another case, a well-advanced system of tracking pollution was shut down when an implicated company threatened the curator of the data collected with a lawsuit.

In a post to one of the groups, a person complains about the effect of polluted air on their health, ranging from sinus infections, dry, burning eyes, chronic sore throat and coughs, to severe bouts of nausea, constant headaches and insomnia.

What all these groups have in common is the realisation that data is power.

Collecting data

For the past few decades, people have tried to fill the data gaps by leaving buckets out to collect dust — known by civil society groups as “bucket brigades”.

This is what allows people in Riverlea in Johannesburg — next to a mine dump that is being re-mined for precious minerals — to say with some authority that they know a lot of dust is falling on their homes.


In Riverlea residents are fed up with the mine dumps in the area. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

It’s also what allows people in Tsakane, 66km and an hour’s drive to the east of Riverlea, to come to the same conclusion about the mountainous mine dump being created on their doorstep from waste mined in Riverlea and other parts of Gauteng.

That data allows people to have more confidence when they demand that companies, and the state, do better. But it doesn’t work in court.

And when the M&G has asked polluters about their response to this kind of record of their pollution, the answer is always some version of “you can’t prove it was us”.

Now, people in South Africa’s major cities are starting to know for a fact that the air they breathe is toxic and is making them sick.


Who is in charge of regulating South Africa’s air quality?

Thuli Khumalo is South Africa’s chief air quality officer. She works for the national environment department, which is often sidelined by the drive to “cut red tape” and the rush to grow extractive industries.

She walks around with a small see-through folder in which is a worn copy of the Constitution and a tattered environmental law book. The latter is what gives her the authority to look after the country’s air. It gets used so often that the pages are falling out.

The Air Quality Act allows her to set acceptable levels of different pollutants. Companies have to apply for permission to pollute.

But the law is deliberately crafted to weaken her hand.

She says: “The regulations allow us to take ‘reasonable’ measures to control air pollution.”

That one word — reasonable — is crucial. In practice, it means the department can only gradually change air quality laws, slowly improving on apartheid levels where people of colour were deliberately placed downwind of toxic industrial facilities.

It also means the law must balance the pushback of other government departments, companies and state-owned entities. This is why, when new air quality legislation came into effect in 2015, virtually all big polluters, including Eskom, Sasol and ArcelorMittal, applied for exemptions to the law — and got them.

These exemptions are granted by district authorities, not Khumalo.

Her unit also has limited means of getting people to obey the law. If a company pollutes, she needs the environment department’s enforcement officials, the Green Scorpions, to investigate and then hand the case over to the National Prosecuting Authority. The person tasked with looking after the air everyone breathes has very little real power beyond setting the limits of pollution and asking people to stick to those limits.

This means that it’s often down to individuals to call in enforcement officials. Khumalo says it’s something she does all the time, even when out and about with her children — it’s a habit that makes her son furious at polluters.

“He’ll shout: ‘Why are you doing this?’ and say: ‘My mom needs to knock off’.’ ”

Khumalo says things are changing, and companies are fixing their pollution. But she is quick to open the South African Air Quality Information System app and stare at stations reporting polluted air, saying: “This is still a huge problem”.

She says fixing air takes decades — as it did in European countries. But, once that pollution is better, she says a “radical shift” will be needed in how everyone tackles air pollution.

“We have a blame culture in South Africa. You want to lay the blame with the polluter. We take very little time to say: ‘When I drove to the office what contribution did I make?’ You are also adding to the problem that is affecting you.”


Jo’burg, Gauteng, Cape Town respond

“The air quality in the City of Johannesburg is relatively poor due to exceedances for particulate matter,” according to a city representative.

The city says it operates eight air quality monitoring stations, but crime and vandalism keep interrupting their operations.

The city also says it has reviewed its air quality management plan and the air pollution control by-laws, which provide a framework for tackling pollution. Facilities that pollute without a licence to do so are fined a minimum of R200 000.

The province says: “Air quality of ambient air in Gauteng is variable, with certain areas experiencing poor to very poor air quality. However, certain areas experience good quality.” The overall air quality in the three metropolitan municipalities in the province — Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni — “fluctuates on and around the set national standard”.

The province’s response to limit air pollution includes teaching people about it and synchronising traffic lights to ease traffic flow and reduce car exhaust fumes.

The province notes that: “The metros and the province have never received official complaints from any persons falling ill by ambient air pollution,” but it investigates when there are complaints.

The City of Cape Town says it believes “the air quality in Cape Town is safe to breathe”, with the air quality “generally of an acceptable standard” when compared with the legal levels.

The city says it runs 14 stations to monitor air quality, that about R34-million has been spent in the last three years on an air quality laboratory and the system that tests air, and that three vehicles are allocated to officials to do daily roadside tests of diesel vehicles to ensure they are running properly. It adds that more than R1-million in fines have been levied this year alone for illegal air pollution activities.

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