Deadly air: How Eskom’s coal-fired power stations are killing people

August 19th, 2019, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: Energize

Eskom’s reliance on coal for electricity generation is proving to be deadly. According to new NASA satellite data analysis, Mpumalanga is the second worst SO2 emission hotspot in the world, beaten only by Russia’s enormous  smelters. This is due to the density of coal-fired power plants there. Although experts in medical research say that high levels of air pollution shorten life expectancy by 20 years, the national air quality officer might lower SA’s air quality standards still further.

The latest report from the North American Space Administration (NASA), which uses satellites to monitor atmospheric conditions on Earth, shows that the concentration of coal-fired power plants in Mpumalanga and east Gauteng produces dangerously high levels of SO2 in the atmosphere [1].

This news comes at a time when South Africa’s national air quality officer, Dr Thuli Khumalo, is considering whether to weaken the country’s SO2 limits ever further [2]. Weakening the all-ready lax SO2 limits would make these around ten times weaker than the equivalent standard in India and 28 times weaker than the equivalent standard in China.

The South African government has admitted that its major coal mining region – Mpumalanga and east Gauteng, referred to as the Highveld – has one of the worst air pollution levels in the world [3]. This, despite the country’s constitution stating that “everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being” (section 24) and the area being declared a “high priority” area for air quality improvement in 2007. In 2015 the government admitted that its air quality plan had failed [4].

Fig. 1: SO2 emissions and sources (NASA).

This Highveld priority area flanks the more densely populated cities of Tswane and Johannesburg and includes large areas of Gauteng – South Africa’s most densely populated province.

Eskom admitted that pollution from its coal-fired power stations kills an estimated 320 people a year, although independent studies suggest the number could be closer to 2200 [5, 6]. About 4-million people live in the affected area. In 2016, the power utility admitted that emissions from its 12 coal-fired power stations in the area accounted for 92% of the daily ambient SO2 limit, 85% of the hourly ambient SO2 limit, 82% of the hourly ambient NO2 limit and 68% of the daily ambient dust, soot and smoke (PM2,5) limit. This type of pollution is in the form of small particles, called particulate matter (PM), and the number refers to the size of the particles, in µm.

A new 2019 study by atmospheric scientist Dr Andrew Gray modelled pollution from 12 Eskom coal-fired power stations, Sasol’s coal-to-liquids plant and a Total oil refinery in and around the Highveld priority area. He says that cumulative emissions from the 14 facilities created acute exposures in 2016 that exceeded the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) guidelines for daily or hourly averages for all pollutants.

Dr Gray’s studies reveal that the highest 24-hour average exposure of PM2,5 was 45 μg/m3, nearly twice the WHO guideline of 25 μg/m3. These conditions occurred around (Eskom’s) Kendal, Kriel, and Duvha power stations. The highest 24-hour average exposure of SO2 was 241,4 μg/m3, over 12 times the WHO’s standard of 20 μg/m3. The highest NO2 one-hour average was 2020 μg/m3, over 10 times the one-hour average standard of 200 μg/m3 [7].

Dr Gray modelled pollution at 120 “sensitive sites”, mainly schools and hospitals, where he found pollutants accumulating from Eskom plants. All of the 120 sensitive sites (primarily schools and hospitals) analysed in the model exceeded the WHO’s 24-hour average SO2 guideline (20 μg/m3) in 2016 due to emissions from the 14 facilities. The modelled average peak 24-hour SO2 concentration across all 120 sensitive sites was 66,4 μg/m3 in 2016, with a maximum of 178 μg/m3 at Duvha Primary School [8].

Prof. Dr Peter Orris, from the University of Illinois’ school of public health, confirms that air pollution causes illness and premature death, saying that air pollutants from burning coal have profound effects on the health of children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those suffering from asthma, heart, and lung diseases.

According to a study undertaken by Dr Mike Holland, an air quality and health specialist, in addition to the hundreds – if not thousands – of people who die each year as a result of Highveld air pollution emanating from Eskom’s coal-fired power stations, thousands more suffer from bronchitis and other respiratory tract diseases. He estimates that these deaths and illnesses could cost South Africa about R33-billion a year [9].

Fig. 2: Eskom’s Kriel power station near Witbank, Mpumalanga.

According to Dr Gray, the three worst offenders are Lethabo, Kendal and Kriel power stations, and that any attempt to clean the Highveld’s air must focus on Eskom’s power plants, Sasol’s Secunda plant and the nearby NatRef refinery [10].

The Department of Environmental Affairs reported in 2011 that the “total estimated annual emissions of PM10 on the Highveld priority area is 279 630 tons, of which approximately half is attributed to particulate entrainment on opencast mine haul roads. Power generation contributes 73% of the total estimated NOx emission of 978 781 tons per annum and 82% of the total estimated SO2 emission of 1 633 655 tons per annum.” [11].

The situation is dire and needs urgent attention. The time has come for the Department of Environmental Affairs, which has been aware of the situation for almost ten years, together with the national air quality officer, Eskom and Sasol to take immediate action to reduce air pollution.













Contact Chris Vlavianos, Greenpeace Africa, Tel 079 883-7036,


















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