Disease stalks Merebank kids, study finds

Primary school children in the heart of south Durban's industrial area appear to have one of the highest rates of asthma in the world, a team of university researchers reported on Thursday.

Releasing interim results of a new health study at a briefing at the University of Natal's Nelson Mandela Medical School, the researchers said there was a "strikingly high" rate of asthma among children at the Settlers Primary School in Lakhimpur Road, Merebank.

More than half of the 248 pupils and teachers who took part in the study were reported to be suffering from severe or mild asthma symptoms.

Of these, about 17 percent were believed to be suffering from moderate to severe asthma, 14 percent had mild but persistent symptoms, and 24 percent had mild but intermittent symptoms. About 44 percent reported no symptoms at all.

In comparison to the Settlers school pupils who live in Umlazi, the asthma rate was also markedly higher among the children who live and study in Merebank.

The research team said acute cases of asthma appeared to be closely related to emissions of sulphur dioxide and other air pollutants measured in the school grounds.

However, the researchers cautioned that the results were only interim findings and were the outcome of a "relatively inexpensive and fast study".

The principal author of the report, Professor Tom Robbins of the University of Michigan in the United States, outlined the study results on Thursday afternoon to a group of academics, government and city officials, community groups, industry representatives and parents and teachers from Settlers School.

The study forms part of a multi-stakeholder industrial pollution study initiated in September 2000 by environment minister Valli Moosa shortly after a survey by The Mercury that suggested an unusually high rate of leukaemia and cancer in Merebank children.

The study is being funded by Engen, Sapref, the Durban Metro health department, the University of Natal, Technikon Natal and the civic pollution watchdog body "groundWork".

The researchers include Robbins and Michigan University colleague Professor Stuart Battermann; Professor Barry Kistnasamy and fellow researchers of the University of Natal medical school, and Technikon Natal staff.

At the time of the study last year, levels of sulphur dioxide at the Settlers School did not exceed local and United States guidelines, but Battermann said the levels of volatile organic compounts (including benzene, toluene and trichlorethylene) were higher or equal to the levels found during a similar study near four-lane highways in the city of Detroit, Michigan.

Robbins said it was difficult to quantify to what extent asthma was aggravated by industrial air pollution levels, but there seemed to be no difference in asthma rates between the children of smokers and non-smokers.

He cautioned that the results were interim findings and that the most intensive period of the study was restricted to a three-week period in April and May last year.

He added that it was a "relatively inexpensive and fast study" which did not include skin allergy tests or the measurement of household allergens.

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