Coal-fired power plants emitting deadly sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx) and particulate matter are responsible for about 2,000 deaths in South Africa annually.
Under normal circumstances, Eskom’s air pollution-related death tolls are part of everyday life, particularly in Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Limpopo. But with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, what does this air pollution mean for the health of residents living in heavily polluted areas?
The answer is not encouraging.
The novel coronavirus presents possibly deadly consequences for those suffering from underlying health issues such as asthma, diabetes, cancer and hypertension.
What we know so far is that complications arise when a patient’s ability to breathe is compromised.
However, we also know that air pollution can exacerbate the above-mentioned health conditions, which pose a major problem for those living in areas that are notorious for their substandard air quality.
Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) lead analyst Lauri Myllyvirta has explained that years of air pollution exposure, combined with government’s failure to force major polluters to clean up, has made South Africa’s population more vulnerable to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It is also likely that air pollution exposure weakens the body’s defences against the virus in the short term – this effect is well known for other respiratory infections, but not yet for Covid-19 specifically,” said Myllyvirta.
In a recent study, Harvard’s school of public health sought to connect whether a person’s long-term exposure to fine particulate matter (inhalable particles found in smoke and haze) increased their risks of dying of Covid-19 in the US.
They found that even a small increase in fine particulate matter was associated with a 15% Covid-19 death rate increase.
Air pollution has also been identified by the Global Burden of Disease Study to be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and death, and, according to the study, 5.5 million premature deaths worldwide can be linked to air pollution.
As our understanding of the novel coronavirus evolves, and information gaps begin to be filled, some aspects of the virus require assumptions made from similar viruses.
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which claimed and infected thousands of lives in 2002 and 2003, belongs to the same group of betacoronaviruses, which means tracking SARS-CoV-2 and comparing it with SARS-CoV is helpful in potentially curbing the pandemic.
As much as this serves as an assurance that we aren’t completely clueless about what Covid-19 is, analysing the connection between air pollution and fatalities during the SARS outbreak paints a bleak picture.
An Environmental Health journal entry in November 2003 explored the connection between SARS deaths and air pollution, and found that fatalities increased in areas with higher air pollution indexes (APIs).
The study cited that SARS patients from moderate APIs had an 84% increased chance of dying from the virus, compared with regions with low APIs, and concluded that although other factors may have influenced results, the possible detrimental health consequences of air pollution, especially during the SARS outbreak, “deserves further investigation”.
Centre for Environmental Rights attorney and programme head for pollution and climate change Robyn Hugo has painted an even more worrying picture while outlining South Africa’s substandard ambient air quality, especially in the Mpumalanga Highveld, the Vaal Triangle and Waterberg, all of which have been declared air pollution priority areas.
“Even though they are supposed to be health-based, SA ambient air quality standards are several times weaker than the very outdated 2005 WHO [World Health Organisation] air quality standards, and even our weak standards are consistently exceeded, exposing people to dangerous levels of air pollution, with accompanying health impacts,” Hugo explained.
She said that the poor, the young and the elderly, as well as pregnant women and those with underlying health conditions were most at risk of being affected by the deadly combination of air pollution and Covid-19, and said it was fair to conclude that breathing dirty air increased the risk of complications and deaths from Covid-19.
Hugo added that South Africa’s minimum emission standards (MES), first set in March 2010, are also weak.
MES determines limits set for various pollutants to be emitted by different kinds of polluting facilities.
Hugo explained that since 31 March 2010, government, Eskom and Sasol had known the necessary compliance that their coal boilers needed to obtain by April 2020, and Sasol and Eskom knew that postponements of up to five years were a possibility.
“This means that Africa’s biggest polluters would have had 15 years’ notice to meet the April 2020 MES,” Hugo said.
South Africa’s MES are weak even when compared to other developing countries, she explained. In 2015, South Africa’s existing plant SO2 MES (500 mg/Nm3) were 17.5 times weaker than China’s, and almost six times weaker than India’s.
In 2020, MES were made twice as weak by Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Barbara Creecy, doubling MES to 1000 mg/Nm3.
As a result, Hugo said the country’s MES were now 28 times weaker than China’s and 10 times weaker than India’s.
And according to the CER, this would push South Africa’s air pollution-related deaths to 3,300, 1,000 of these projected to occur in Gauteng alone.
“Industry had a long time to prepare to meet very weak MES. And yet, it has not done so,” Hugo said, adding that Eskom’s failure to meet lenient emissions standards in its atmospheric emission licences was a criminal offence.
Government has essentially weakened MES to make it easier for facilities such as Sasol and Eskom to comply, an ethical and legal conundrum adding to their woes.
But what does this mean for citizens during a viral pandemic and what is government doing to protect its citizens?
Now that we know the extent of air pollution in South Africa, what do we do while the pandemic continues?
Myllyvirta suggests that South Africa now has an opportunity to invest in modernising the country’s ailing power sector, “through accelerated roll-out of clean energy sources and refurbishing some of the existing coal-fired power plants to be more reliable and less polluting, while closing down others”.
These suggestions, he said, could be a key opportunity to reduce pollution and ease the burden of air pollution and blackouts on the economy.
Hugo’s sentiments echo those of Life After Coal, an organisation which discourages new coal-fired power stations and mine investment: “It does not make sense for Eskom to spend large sums of money investing in equipment to retrofit stations which will be decommissioned in coming years.”
Hugo explained that stations should be accelerating the decommissioning of power plants, in a way that keeps coal workers in mind. But this is something Eskom has confirmed on numerous occasions it does not plan on doing, and instead wishes to postpone compliance regulations, along with Sasol.
“Both [have] brought several applications seeking postponement of compliance – with Eskom making it clear that it did not ever intend to comply with April 2020 SO2 MES, except for at its two newest stations,” Hugo and Life After Coal said.
Encouragingly, ESA TROPOMI 5P satellite-based pollution comparisons show that Johannesburg’s nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions have dropped dramatically, most likely due to the lack of cars on the roads and less industrial pollution during lockdown, Myllyvirta said.
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