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How air pollution affects your family's health

8 December 2020
3 minute read

Mother assisting child with asthma inhaler

Air pollution is a problem in South Africa’s industrialised areas, with serious consequences for your own and your family’s health. We highlight how air pollution contributes to health problems and offer tips to help minimise and manage the risk where possible. Plus, we find out where in the country pollution levels are high.

How is air pollution hazardous?
Very small particles in the air can penetrate the respiratory system as you inhale, causing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, central nervous system dysfunctions, and lung cancer.

What are harmful air pollutants?
Common pollutants are nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide, produced by burning coal, oil, gas or diesel, and carbon monoxide, produced by burning petrol, wood, propane, charcoal or other fuel.

Air pollution can contribute to a number of serious conditions

6 ways your family’s health may be affected
Air pollution can contribute to a number of serious conditions and diseases. Children are particularly vulnerable, and air pollution may have lifelong effects.

Chest infections
Chest infections like bronchitis (constant irritation of the airway tissues and lungs) have been linked to air pollution, because it causes the airways to become more susceptible to infection.

Asthma is one of the primary health hazards of polluted air. Pollution can trigger asthma attacks and make asthma symptoms worse.  Local studies have found that people living in industrial areas or near mine dumps, where air pollution is high, have higher prevalence of asthma, one of the most common chronic conditions in the world,

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
The tiny particles in polluted air are “irritants” that damage the lungs, which in turn exacerbates COPD. Smoking indoors or breathing in smoke from cooking on a wood/coal stove, presents the highest risk of developing COPD due to air pollution.

Lung cancer
Particulate matter - the tiniest, dust-like particles in the air - can cause lung cancer, although it’s not yet known exactly how these damage cell DNA which leads to cancer.

Cardiovascular disease
Air pollution can damage the inside walls of the blood vessels, causing them to become narrower and harder, which can in turn contribute to high blood pressure.

Neurological disease
Air pollution has also been linked tocentral nervous system diseases, including strokes, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and some neurodevelopmental disorders. Pollution affects the vascular structures in the brain, which in turn can have serious effects on neural functioning.

Where are you most at risk?
Vehicle emissions are a contributor, so congested cities and areas near busy roads are higher risk.

Indoor air quality is also a concern. Fires used for heating or cooking are commonly a source of pollutants.

Air pollution is worst near industrial centres. Local studies have shown air pollution is highest in:

  • Gauteng: Three Rivers in Vereeniging (and nearby Sharpeville and Zamdela), Alexandra, Diepsloot and Ivory Park, Etwatwa township (near Springs), Wattville (close to Benoni), Germiston
  • Mpumalanga highveld: Standerton, Delmas, eMalahleni (formerly Witbank) Middelburg, Hendrina and Ermelo and Secunda
  • Waterberg: Lephalale (formerly Ellisras), Thabazimbi and Mokopane (formerly Potgietersrus)
  • Durban: Near Chatsworth and Wentworth
  • Cape Town has relatively low levels of air pollution.

Tips to minimise risk of health problems due to air pollutants
Lara Jagwanth, a pharmacist and medical practitioner at pharmaceutical company Sanofi, offers these tips:

  • Check the air quality index forecast for the day and limit your activity if pollution levels are high
  • Avoid exercising along heavily travelled roads
  • Try and reduce car trips on busy roads
  • Reduce or stop using a fireplace or wood stove indoors, and open windows for ventilation
  • Wearing a mask helps reduce exposure to air pollutants

Air pollution can affect everyone, even the healthiest children and adults. Be aware of your location and how much pollution is in the air you breathe and do what you can to minimise the effects on your family.

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