On the 5th of June each year, the United Nations hosts World Environment Day, which is used to bring global awareness to severe environmental issues that require urgent political action.

This year is especially significant for South Africa, where air pollution from coal-fired power stations kills more than 2 200 people every year.

The theme for the 2019 United Nation’s annual World Environmental Day is “Beat Air Pollution” and aims to draw attention to the silent killer around us.

According to recent data from the World Health Organization, more than 7 million people die from air pollution, globally, every year.

This includes more than 1.7 million child deaths every year, worldwide.

A 2017 report by UK-based air quality and health expert, Dr Mike Holland, found that air pollution from Eskom coal-fired power stations kills more than 2,200 South Africans every year, and causes thousands of cases of bronchitis and asthma in adults and children annually.

“This costs the country more than R34 billion annually, through hospital admissions and lost working days,” says Bobby Peek, Director of environmental justice group groundWork.

The study made the following findings:

  • 2 239 deaths per year: 157 from lung cancer; 1 110 from ischaemic heart disease; 73 from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease;719 from strokes; and 180 from lower respiratory infection
  • 2 781 cases of chronic bronchitis per year in adults
  • 9 533 cases of bronchitis per year in children aged 6 to 12
  • 2 379 hospital admissions per year
  • 3 972 902 days of restricted activity per year
  • 94 680 days of asthma symptoms per year in children aged 5 to 19
  • 996 628 lost working days per year

This research shows how pollution costs South Africa and people living here an enormous amount in medical costs, lost working days, and lost development opportunities.

“The worst air pollution is caused by emissions from Eskom’s coal-fired power stations and Sasol’s operations. This includes their coal-to-liquids plant at Secunda. Vehicle emissions, household fuels, oil refineries, cement producers, coal mining and haulage are also significant contributors to air pollution in South Africa,” says Rico Euripidou of groundWork.

Civil society and community organisations like groundWork, Earthlife Africa, and the Centre for Environmental Rights (together the Life After Coal campaign), the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, and the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance, have battled with big polluters and authorities for decades, arguing that the poor air quality in areas like the Mpumalanga Highveld, the Vaal Triangle, Limpopo Waterberg and South Durban constitute violations of the Constitutional right to an environment not harmful to health or wellbeing.

Last month the Department of Environmental Affairs was forced to set aside standards that would allow all coal-fired boilers to double the amount of the harmful pollutant sulphur dioxide (SO2) they are allowed to emit into the air from April 2020.

The Department of Environmental Affairs concedes, in its own State of the Air reports, that air pollution is a challenge and that air quality does not meet even South Africa’s weak ambient air quality standards, but has, to date, denied that this constitutes a violation of human rights.