Health Study Proves that Communities in South Durban Face Increased Health Problems Due to Industrial Pollution

4 August 2006 - The eThekwini Municipality released the findings of the South Durban Health Study today, which confirms an increased rate of respiratory problems and cancer risk in south Durban, South Africa. The study was undertaken after years of civil society mobilising against industrial pollution in the south Durban residential area, which has a legacy of heavy apartheid industrial development on its doorstep [1].

The study had two components to it:

1) Exposure Assessment and Health Risk Assessment and

2) an Epidemiological Study.

The epidemiological study shows strong evidence that school children in the south Durban area (and their families) are more likely to have increased persistent asthma and bronchial hyper reactivity (BHR) compared with the reference (comparison) study groups in North Durban [2].

The exposure assessment and health risk assessment study also found that air quality in south Durban was generally poorer and more heavily polluted than air in the comparison population locality. In addition, air quality in Durban City [Warwick Triangle] was further dangerously elevated due to the existence of Durban’s main public transport node and high traffic volumes within the area.

The researchers also tested whether specific periods with higher air pollution levels in south Durban impacted on health of children with respiratory problems and found that adverse effects on pulmonary function were statistically significantly when associated with increased ambient levels of Nitrogen Dioxides (NO2), Nitrogen Oxide (NO), Particulate Matter of the size 10 ug (PM10) and Sulphur Dioxide (SO2).

The research findings support that the major sources of pollution are arising from the petrochemical and associated industries as well as other significant fossil fuel energy uses, such as motor vehicles.

The research also estimated what the probable lifetime risk of contracting cancer would be following exposure to the accumulative pollutants in south Durban. Using this methodology they estimate this to be 25 in 100 000 people, well above acceptable international guidelines levels. What is of particular concern is that this cancer risk estimate used averaged data which means that this might be not reflect a worst case scenario!

In light of these findings we strongly encourage the eThekwini Municipality to attend to the variety of actions which are recommended by the report in order to ensure the protection of people’s health in south Durban. SDCEA and groundWork believe that the following should be concentrated on:

There is an urgent need to get a more systematic understanding of what cancers affect people living in the south Durban area. A baseline of cancers in the area needs to be understood in order that the eThekwini Municipality can improve its monitoring of governance by comparing present data with long term trends. A cancer registry is one example of this, while a systematic review of health providers servicing south Durban community is another.

There is concern that ambient concentrations of metals such as cadmium, chrome and manganese, which are found in the area, present a further risk. The eThekwini Municipality needs to undertake urgent action to find these emission sources in order to better regulate and stop these emissions.

Considering the reality that “relatively modest” increases in concentration of NO2, NO, PM10 and SO2 adversely affects pulmonary function of people living in this areas, the present standards proposed by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism [3] need to be made more stringent in south Durban because of the evidence presented.

There is clear evidence that air pollution that affects the community exists in south Durban. What is critical now is for government to review all permits of the industries in the area which emit these identified problematic chemicals in order to start a process of reducing the sources of these chemicals, and that this is undertaken in conjunction with increased enforcement and monitoring.

Desmond D’Sa, the Chairperson of SDCEA states: “The results support community concerns that have been expressed over the last 30 years that an air pollution problem exists in the south Durban area and that it affects the health of local residents. This is a victory for community campaigning for environmental justice in the south Durban area and the eThekwini Municipality must be commended for taking such a bold step for supporting and undertaking this research. We now have proof validating community struggles.”

Rico Euripidou, resident environmental epidemiologist at groundWork states: “We expected the findings of this study would show increased levels of respiratory illness in people living in south Durban as a result of the industrial pollution in the area. This evidence provides government with a unique opportunity to act to protect the citizens of south Durban.”


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[1] The health study was proposed by government in November 2000, after air samples taken by groundWork and SDCEA on 20 May 2000 indicated elevated levels of industrial pollutants such as methylene chloride, carbon disulphide, 2-butanone, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and x-ylenes. Subsequent media investigations indicated leukaemia levels in the area being 24 times the national average, and the Settlers School Study undertaken by Michigan University indicated respiratory problems in the learners at Settlers School as being at 52% of the population.

[2] The reference group with the same social economic standings as the south Durban community were drawn from Newlands East, Newlands West and KwaMashu. These communities do not have the extensive industrial pollution that is found in south Durban.

[3] See Government Notice 28899 here.