On-going air pollution mitigates against proposed NHI

August 21st, 2019, Published in Articles: Energize

While the South African ministry of health is keen to introduce a national health insurance (NHI) scheme, it seems that such a scheme may be undermined and made more expensive than necessary, should the minister of environmental affairs fail to limit the levels of air pollution produced by the country’s state-owned electricity utility and some large, private, industrial companies.

Roger Lilley

Recent reports regarding South Africa’s poor air quality – which some people discount as emotional outbursts by environmentalists who lack proper data – are being backed up by studies undertaken by highly respected institutions in the UK and USA.

Air pollution is toxic and deadly, especially in areas where coal is burnt to generate electricity, or converted to liquid fuel, or crude oil is refined. The late Dr Edna Molewa, the minister of environmental affairs at the time, in a response to a question regarding the poor air quality in the areas of Mpumalanga and Gauteng where such industrial plants are sited, said “the department acknowledges that these improvements have not resulted in the air quality in the priority area being in compliance with the National Ambient Air Quality Standards”, referring to some mitigation efforts the ministry had introduced. Having identified the region as a “priority area”, whatever mitigation efforts were put in place did not achieve the desired effect.

The Guardian reports that experts suggest that people who spend their childhoods in areas with high levels of air pollution may be more likely to later develop mental disorders. Air pollution, particularly industrial air pollution of the type caused by the toxic gases emitted by coal-fired power stations and the like, is a major topic in health circles. This is especially so since an increasing number of studies have found links to conditions ranging from asthma to dementia and various types of cancer. Air pollution also affects mental health.

The article also cites research published in January 2019 which found that children who grow up in more polluted areas are more likely to have depression by the age of 18 than those growing up in areas with cleaner air. It also refers to another study by researchers in the USA and Denmark which suggests a link between air pollution and an increased risk of mental health problems, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and personality disorders.

The minister of health is seeking to introduce a national health insurance scheme so that everyone in the country can enjoy high-quality healthcare. But what’s the point if the air is so polluted that its poisoning people to death? Companies, be they public or private, should be forced to comply with the minimum air quality standard at their own cost.

Rumour has it that Barbara Creecy, the minister of environmental affairs, might reduce the National Ambient Air Quality Standard. Such a decision would be disastrous and would undermine any effort the minister of health would make to improve people’s quality of life. It is therefore essential that the minister of environmental affairs takes a stand against any pressure she may be under to reduce South Africa’s already lax air quality standard further and rather increase the minimum levels to international standards.

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