Air pollution and mental trauma

Keeping with our latest posts theme we are now looking at the effect of air pollution on our health and mental well being.  Enjoy the read!

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Air pollution drives mental trauma
Sipho Kings 03 May 2017

Mail & Guardian

“The air that they breathe kills about 20 000 South Africans each year. The number of those who struggle to breathe, sleep and exercise as a result of air pollution is unknown but international research indicates it is likely to be millions of people.

In addition, most of South Africa’s air quality monitoring stations, confined to the major metros, do not work. That means decisions are made and implemented without knowing the effect the resultant air pollution has on people’s health and mental wellbeing.

New research from the University of York in the United Kingdom, has tried to tackle this. The work — titled Can Clean Air Make You Happy? — found that nitrogen dioxide is “significantly and negatively related to life satisfaction”.

Breathing the gas has the same effect on people’s quality of life as ending a relationship, or having their partner or close family member die.

Nitrogen dioxide is emitted in great quantities by diesel vehicles and coal-fired power stations. Nitrogen dioxide gets trapped in urban areas, and forms a blanket over rural areas. In cities, tall buildings, walls and roads ensure that the gas from car exhausts is funnelled and concentrated. People walking or running down these funnels then breathe the gas in, sucking it deep into their lungs. The gas inflames the lining of their lungs, reducing immunity to lung infections. It exacerbates other conditions such as colds, bronchitis and asthma. And it increases the chances of cancer.

Air pollution tracking by Nasa has shown that Johannesburg and the Pretoria area have the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide in the southern hemisphere.

The report found a correlation between how unhappy people felt and how much bad air they breath.

When people see themselves as being in poor health, the negative effect of being exposed to nitrogen dioxide is compounded — mentally. The research says: “Nitrogen dioxide has a more substantive negative relationship with the life satisfaction of individuals who regard themselves as being in relatively poor health, as opposed to those who classify themselves as being relatively satisfied with their health.”

That finding carries with it serious implications for poorer South Africans who live downwind coal-fired power stations and have little effective access to healthcare.

It also means every person living in urban areas has their quality of life reduced by the vehicles driving around them. This is either directly through inhaling nitrogen dioxide and becoming sick and depressed.

To reach their conclusion on the effect of nitrogen dioxide, the research team took the findings from research on life satisfaction, done in the UK, and overlaid it with data on air pollution.

Similar data is not available in South Africa. For starters, air quality monitoring stations are located in large urban areas. Then, they either do not work or are inconsistent and do not give a data record from which any conclusions can be drawn.

In eThekwini, air quality pollution monitors had not reported data since 2013, according to the environment department. This is despite the port and petrochemical plants releasing toxic gases over residential areas south of Durban.

There is also little research into air quality in South Africa. In 2014, the Mail & Guardian published a rare report that had been commissioned for Eskom on the effect of its coal-fired fleet. Mostly based in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, these stations were predicted to kill 617 people a year when fully operational. A further 24 842 people would be admitted to hospital each year. The utility has consistently refused to answer questions about this data, but the research said most of the deaths would be as a result of sulphur dioxide pollution.

Diesel vehicles, the other major source of sulphur dioxide emissions, make up 20% of the South African market but there is no research into their effect on air quality. Data from the World Health Organisation for 2016 showed that Hartbeespoort has the worst air quality in South Africa, followed by Pretoria and Johannesburg. In those three cases, the levels were double that recommended as safe by the organisation.

The University of York’s work is part of a growing field of research into the psychological effect of broken environments. Previous research has shown that living near green areas improves mental and physical wellbeing.

At the moment, findings like these are not used in decision-making. The researchers said: “Unfortunately, environmental amenities often do not have prices and will therefore be typically underprovided by the market.”

So, a green area that might suck up nitrogen dioxide emissions and give people clean air will still be replaced by an apartment block because that block creates tangible profit. Fixing people’s health creates benefits that are hard to track, but still save the state in healthcare costs.

The researchers said more of this kind of work is needed: “In order to provide a clear rationale for environmental management and regulation, it is important to calculate how much value people attribute to environmental features.”

This research could start to nudge development decisions in favour of those that lead to better lives for people.”

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Air pollution kills 20 000 per year in South Africa – as many as in traffic
Sipho Kings 12 Sep 2016

Mail & Guardian

“Air pollution kills 20 000 people in South Africa every year, costing the economy nearly R300-million. This is according to new research from the World Bank.

The research, Air Pollution: Strengthening the Economic Case for Action, concluded that air pollution kills 5.5-million people each year, making it responsible for one in every 10 deaths worldwide. That data comes from the World Health Organisation.

Five million deaths a year make air pollution the fourth leading cause of premature deaths in the world. Only smoking, obesity and dietary issues kill more people.

Writing in the research, lead author Urvashi Narain, said: “The scale of the problem is truly daunting.”

In terms of cost, the bank calculated that premature deaths cost the world economy R3-trillion in lost work days alone. Those are people that are too sick to go to work, mostly from chest problems such as asthma.

The impact of air pollution is, however, much greater when all the costs are included.

Besides the cost of missing work, people also have to spend money on staying healthy by buying things such as asthma medication. This cost is also carried by the state.

By World Bank calculations, the total cost of this to the world economy is R70-trillion a year.

Worst-hit are developing countries, according to the researchers. Over 90% of premature deaths attributed to air pollution happened in these countries, where the same percentage of the population are exposed to “dangerous levels of air pollution”.

The research looked at air pollution between 1990 and 2013, comparing the impacts of pollution in those two years.

“Air pollution is not just a health risk but also a drag on development. By causing illness and premature death, air pollution reduces the quality of life. By causing loss of productive labour, it also reduces incomes in those countries.”

Developing countries – whose rapidly growing economies translate into more pollution from coal-fired power stations and new industry – have borne the brunt of it.

According to the report, 87% of the world’s population lives in areas where the air pollution exceeds the World Health Organisation’s safe levels.

Old people and the poorest are disproportionately affected. “The poor are more likely to live and work in polluted environments, but they are less able to avoid exposure or self-protect.” The researchers said that this part of the population is then stuck, too sick to work and unable to afford medication.

The bank concluded: “Air pollution is a challenge that threatens basic human welfare, damages natural and physical capital, and constrains economic growth.”

The same logic follows in South Africa. The apartheid regime put poor, non-white people downwind of industrial sites. In its 2014 investigation titled Slow Poison: Air pollution, public health and failing governance, nongovernmental group Groundwork said: “People are still polluted and made sick by this pollution.”

Writing in that report, the group’s head Bobby Peek said: “The blueprint for a black neighbourhood was a waste dumpsite, where waste from rich white neighbourhoods and dirty industry was dumped.””

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