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Black SA community takes control of its air

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The Earth Times / IPS, 31 March - After decades of not knowing if they have been breathing in harmful pollution, residents of the black township of Zamdela are now taking the matter into their own hands ... with buckets. Home to 80,000 people, Zamdela is encircled by South Africa's industrial heartland in the province of Free State, known as Sasolburg.

Under the laws of the apartheid government that prohibited certain industry operations from releasing information to the public, the residents of Zamdela, who are downwind of the petro-chemical plants and oil refineries, never knew if the smelly emissions were harmful.

With a new South African government in place since 1994, nearby industries are now making some of their operations and emissions public. But there is still no national environmental enforcement agency that monitors pollution. 

So some of the residents of Zamdela have begun to take monitoring their air quality into their own hands. With the help of environmental groups in the United States, residents here have formed a "bucket brigade" that takes air quality samples with easy-to-use inexpensive bucket-testing devices.

Mvuse Maguma, a school teacher who was born and raised in Zamdela, says he has been concerned that the emissions are harming people's health and takes air quality samples whenever he notices a strange chemical odour coming from nearby industrial plants. "Most people in the community are having similar health problems, including bronchitis, tuberculosis, eye irritations, and asthma," says Maguma. 

Albertina Motsei, who has also lived her whole life in Zamdela, says she is concerned about the black coal dust that is carried by the wind from nearby stockpiles of coal used by industry. "It flies in through the windows and we have to clean it out of our houses several days a week," she says. "We breath all of this in."

Exposure to this type of fine dust, known as particulate matter, has been linked in various studies to increased rates of some of the same upper respiratory diseases Maguma mentions. Last year, the South African environmental group Groundwork and Communities for a Better Environment, an organisation based in California, taught Maguma and Motsei how to use an easy air sampling technique with a plastic bucket.

The plastic bucket serves as a rugged enclosure for a standard air sampling bag and when a small vacuum is used to suck air out of the bucket. A valve attached to the sampling bag is then opened and air rushes into the bag. The sampling bag is then sent to a laboratory in the United States for analysis because there are no government approved testing facilities in South Africa.

Samples taken by the community last year near industrial facilities run by Sasol, South Africa's industrial giant and several other companies including the US company Dow, revealed the presence of 16 potentially dangerous chemicals. Seven of these chemicals, including toluene and styrene, are classified as possible or probable causes of cancer by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Denny Larson, director of Communities for a Better Environment, was particularly alarmed at the levels of benzene found in Sasolburg, which were eight times the US legal limit - the highest ever found in a "bucket" sample, he says. 

Benzene is a proven cause of cancer. Long-term exposure has been linked to leukaemia and anaemia. Breathing benzene can cause drowsiness, dizziness and even unconsciousness. "Sasol must consider the community in which it operates and makes profits and take immediate action to ensure that the Sasolburg community is not exposed to such harmful chemicals," says Maguma, who is now disseminating the test results to the rest of the community. 

This past September Sasol itself worked with Leeds University in Britain to take more air quality samples. These tests also revealed the presence of potentially harmful chemicals, including toluene and benzene. Low to moderate levels of exposure to toluene can cause memory loss, hearing loss and nausea, while repeated exposure to high levels of the chemical can cause permanent brain damage. 

Although there have been no formal public health studies of Zamdela, environmental groups believe the air test results should prompt the government and industries in the area to take swift action to reduce pollution. "It is clear that there is a problem in Sasolburg with regard to air pollution," says Bobby Peek, one of South Africa's most prominent environmental activists who is currently the director of Groundwork. "Industry must be held responsible and plans must be set in place to reduce these emissions."

Sasol, one of South Africa's largest industrial company with operations on every continent, says that Groundwork is exaggerating the threat of air pollution in the area. The company says the levels of all of the chemicals detected in the air in Zamdela, except for benzene, were found to be lower than the recommended guidelines recognised by most industrialised nations.

Sasol acknowledges that four of the samples taken revealed benzene levels that exceeded US guidelines. "Benzene remains the focus of attention by Sasol and (more than one million dollars) is presently being spent to reduce these levels further," says a recent statement released by Sasol. 

Peek argues that even if the other chemical samples are below the recommended guidelines, he says no one knows the health impacts of long-term exposure to the combination of the chemicals present in Zamdela's air. "Sasol as a company should take the pollution seriously, for the longer we wait to take action, the more severe the remedy becomes in the long run," he says.

Even though Peek disagrees with Sasol's interpretation of the data, he views the company's sampling initiative as a victory. "It is the first time in South Africa that a company has made air sampling data available to the public," he says. 

Jerry Ndaba, the Mayor of Sasolburg says he is very concerned about the test results and says the local government council is discussing what action it will take. "We are very alarmed," he says. 

An informal group of residents in Zamdela, including Motsei and Maguma, are currently distributing the test results to the rest of the community. Motsei says she is angry that she never knew about the chemicals she and her family have been breathing in for many years. "Once people find out about this I think we'll march and protest to show the companies that we know what is happening," she says. 


By Danielle Knight, IPS


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