Choke the beloved city

Last year's fire at the Pietermaritzburg landfill site Picture Mark Wing

Pietermaritzburg residents are coughing and choking on the persistent air pollution hanging over the city as doctors and hospitals battle with an influx of chest infections and an increase in reported asthma cases.
A series of recent blazes has added to the dense pollution leaving a noticeable cloud of smog looming over Pietermaritzburg.
Last week’s disastrous fire at the City’s landfill site resulted in tremendous amounts of noxious gasses being released into the atmosphere, which affected the operation of many schools and businesses in close proximity due to the health risks of breathing in the fumes.
A fire at the Pietermaritzburg Market this week sent thick billows of black smoke rising into the air as a blaze burnt through a huge pile of plastic at the rear of the facility.
Mediclinic’s Emergency Unit Head, Sister Thomas says that air pollution has the potential to exacerbate respiratory problems such as asthma and chronic obstruction airway diseases and that the hospital has seen an increase in respiratory tract cases.
Environmental NGO Groundwork campaign manager Musa Chimane explained that last week’s dump fire could have disastrous health consequences on city residents who inhaled the toxic fumes.
“The burning of waste such as Polyvinyl Chloride(PVC) plastic, rubber, batteries and chemicals from cosmetic products that are all similarly found in landfill sites produce toxic smoke which is highly hazardous for any living organism to breathe in.
It could even have long term effects on peoples’ health as the toxic fumes feed cancer and can cause other respiratory or breathing problems,” Musa said.
The city’s geographical positioning doesn’t help the situation much as a phenomena known as temperature inversion traps the polluted air resulting in the thick smog one sees hovering over the city. Cold heavy air containing high levels of pollutants sinks and is trapped below a thermal belt of warm air.

“Pollutants are trapped by the inversion which allows the pollutants to accumulate which causes the sky to become hazy.
Pollutants that are seen to affect air pollution the most are emissions from vehicles which are caused by the traffic that we experience on the N3. Hydro-carbon and carbon black is released by the emissions of the vehicles which causes cancer and respiratory health problems,” Groundwork air quality expert, Rico Euripedou explained.
Clive Anthony, head of the Air Quality Unit at Msunduzi Municipality explains that air quality is constantly changing based on different environmental and climatic changes such as wind speed and direction, temperatures as well as emission of gases into the atmosphere.
“During the winter months of June to August, the City of Pietermaritzburg is particularly susceptible to an accumulation of pollution because it lies in a basin. This is when the City experiences episodes of pollution, which are associated with atmospheric conditions and low level inversions. These conditions give rise to a visible brown haze. As a result, various meteorological parameters are also being measured at the monitoring stations. These parameters include wind direction, wind speed, barometric pressure, ambient temperature, relative humidity, solar radiation, and rainfall,” Anthony said.

Clive said that the municipality’s air quality unit is in charge of monitoring the city’s air quality and they are currently monitoring the levels of Carbon Monoxide, Sulphur Dioxide, Nitrogen oxides, Particulate Matter of less than 2.5 microns and 10 microns, and Ozone. He said that following the recent fires the pollutants known as BTEX have been added to the monitoring list.
City spokeswoman Nqobile Madonda said yesterday that the municipality’s Environmental Health Unit was also in the process of re-establishing its air quality network and that already stations at city hall and Pietermaritzburg airport had been re-commissioned with a third station planned for Edendale.
She said data will be gathered that will enable the city benchmark air quality standards, evaluate levels of risks residents are exposed to and to help contribute to mitigation and control strategies.

Jade le Roux

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