Our deadliest air pollution is ignored - Farming Portal

11 October 2022 - The mostly deadly air pollution in South Africa seldom makes the press. It causes by far the most death, disease and permanent brain damage, but you almost never read about it in the newspapers or hear about it from green environmental groups.

Andrew Kenny

The mostly deadly air pollution in South Africa seldom makes the press. It causes by far the most death, disease and permanent brain damage, but you almost never read about it in the newspapers or hear about it from green environmental groups.

It is seldom on the agenda of conferences on air pollution – such as the 16th Air Quality Governance Lekgotla held last week in Kempton Park by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment. As far as I know, while there is extensive regulation against industrial air pollution, there is none against this more deadly air pollution, certainly none that is enforced.

I am speaking about indoor air pollution, the deadly pollution that comes from the burning of wood, coal, paraffin, dung and candles inside the shacks and houses of poor people in the townships, squatter camps and rural areas. On a still cold winter morning or evening, you will notice an evil-looking brown-grey haze crouching over the townships and squatter camps of Gauteng, Cape Town and elsewhere. Under that haze, people are dying and suffering from indoor air pollution that is not only more toxic and more concentrated than the outdoor pollution from factories and power stations, but contains at least one extra pollutant, the deadly poisonous gas carbon monoxide.

This indoor pollution causes lung disease, heart disease, cancer, TB and cataracts in adults and, worse, acute lower respiratory tract infection in children, killing about 1,400 of them every year. Ventilation in many dwellings is poor (some RDP houses do not have chimneys!) and householders try to keep warm by closing all windows, so making the pollution worse and inhibiting full combustion. When carbon (in coal, wood, etc) burns completely it creates CO2 (carbon dioxide), which is harmless. If it does not burn completely, it makes CO (carbon monoxide), which is deadly.

You don’t notice anything when you breathe in CO, but it sucks oxygen out of your blood and can kill you quickly (and painlessly). A means of committing suicide is a pipe from your car exhaust into the driver’s cab; the exhaust fumes contain some CO. If an infant inhales some CO, but not enough to kill her, it can cause permanent brain damage. This might well be a major cause of low educational success among poor children in South Africa.

A household in the most pristine environment using coal, wood and paraffin indoors will be exposed to far more dangerous air pollution than the same household, living right next the dirtiest coal power station and heating and cooking with electricity. If you care about people, you should be far more concerned about cleaning the indoor air of poor dwellings than the outdoor air near industries. No such concern is shown by either governments or greens.

In addition to the diseases caused by indoor pollution, the risk of fire from burning coal, wood and paraffin indoors is massively greater than the risk to local people of accidents in power stations or factories. A candle burning indoors is incomparably more dangerous than a nuclear reactor.

The greatest fire hazard of all is the cheap paraffin stove, which can explode when it is knocked over. Every year in South Africa this causes most of the estimated 1,300 deaths from fire in the townships, and most of the 9,000 hospitalisations and 20,000 destroyed dwellings. Buried in the statistics are infants whose faces have been burnt off in the fires, and who will look like monsters for the rest of their lives, if they survive at all. In addition,  paraffin often comes in soft drink bottles and little children accidentally drink it, causing over 200 more deaths a year.

The most shocking images of the relative dangers of energy came from Dr Philip Lloyd, a senior colleague in energy research. Shortly after the 9/11 disaster in New York in 2001, he composed a slide for a talk he was going to give on risks in the energy sector. The slide was entitled “Two paraffin accidents”. One image showed one of the Twin Towers with fire erupting out of the building near the top, after a plane had crashed into it. The other showed a cheap paraffin stove knocked over and on fire. An arrow pointed to the stove, and a caption read, “This kills more each year”. Jet fuel is paraffin.

The damage to the Twin Towers and their subsequent collapse was caused not by the collision of the planes, but by the terrible heat coming from the burning of a full plane-load of paraffin. This softened the steel reinforcements of the towers and weakened them, so that they could no longer bear the load above them and came crashing down in a cascade. Just under 3,000 people were killed on 9/11. More than that are routinely killed every three years in South Africa alone in paraffin stove accidents in the townships. In winter you will read on a weekly basis of dreadful fires sweeping through the townships, laying waste to property and killing. people.

At the air quality lekgotla last week, they discussed “the three priority areas of the Vaal Triangle, the Highveld and Waterberg-Bojanala region, as well as in cities and towns”. Air pollution here is indeed a big problem. I worked at Hendrina Power Station, right in the middle of a complex of coal power stations, steelworks and factories. The pollution was awful. Sometimes on a still cloudless day there was darkness at noon. The main pollutants of concern are sulphur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), ozone and smoke. Smoke consists of particles. (For some silly reason we are told to refer to particles as particulates. I refuse to do so. Particle is a noun, particulate is an adjective.) SOx and NOx can cause respiratory disease and heart disease, although it is difficult to assess how much. You see estimates of how many thousands of people die around the world because of SOx and NOx; they might be too low or too high. Particles are probably more dangerous, and the smaller the particle the more dangerous. This is because the small particles can pass through the various filters of the body to penetrate deep into the lungs. They are usually catagorised into PM10 and PM2.5 (10 and 2.5 micron in diameter). Most of the smoke can be removed by electrostatic precipitators or bag filters in the smokestacks. SOx can be removed by scrubbers, although these are very expensive. NOx is more difficult, and can only be reduced somewhat by changing operating conditions.

Several major coal power stations are exceeding their legislated air pollution limits. By law they should be shut down until they comply. As Andre de Ruyter, the Eskom CEO, has pointed out, this would mean they would have to spend billions of Rands to clean them up and load shedding would be much worse for the long time before Eskom could comply. Should the law be waived for a while – or indefinitely? My answer is yes. I’d far prefer to spend a fraction of that money on saving the lives of poor people dying of indoor air pollution or being roasted to death by dangerous indoor fuels. How to do so?

The best form of domestic energy is electricity. The best way of producing electricity is nuclear power, which is clean (no air pollution at all), safe, reliable and affordable. But that is years away even if we start preparing now. Coal stations are polluting but do produce good electricity, if we can get it to all households and if they can afford electrical devices. Liquid petroleum gas (LPG) is an excellent fuel. LPG has quite a high boiling point and so, unlike natural gas or hydrogen, it is liquid at low pressures. It burns cleanly and its stoves are safe. Various campaigns have tried to replace the cheap and horrible paraffin stoves with LPG stoves.

The government must persevere despite perceptions of their safety and problems with their distribution. Solar water heating is good. Solar photovoltaic panels could provide small amounts of electricity for lighting and electronic devices, but would be useless for heating and cooking.
Underlying all the above considerations is one simple, fundamental fact: poverty is bad for the environment. Poor people in the squatter camps are wrecking their environment not because they want to, but because they are poor. In most African countries people, denied electricity and other modern energy, are chopping down the trees and bushes for firewood, not because they want to but because they are poor. An African mother would far rather switch on an electric stove than spend 6 hours a day scratching for wood and so wrecking the environment, but her poverty gives her no choice. Rich tourists from Europe photograph Africa’s magnificent wild animals; poor people in Africa kill them for food or because they are competing with them for land and livestock. The only way to save the environment is for everybody to get rich as soon as possible, so that they can afford clean, efficient modern technology. 

Outdoor air pollution around South African power stations, factories and cities is bad. (Just look down as you are flying into Johannesburg.) But indoor air pollution is far worse, and causes far more death and disease. Our first priority should be to clean it up.

Andrew Kenny is a writer, an engineer and a classical liberal.

This article was first published on the Daily Friend.