By Kanina Foss

South African healthcare costs arising from air pollution amount to R4-billion a year.

This figure was revealed at the launch of the first South African State of the Air report, which provides a comprehensive picture of what the country's air looked like in 2005, the year in which the Air Quality Act came into effect.

The report - which has taken four years to put together - will act as a baseline to measure the efficacy of the new air quality management regime.

"Until 2005, there was absolutely no centralised gathering of air quality information. With the crossover to the new legislation, we thought it was important to gather all the information," said the Department of Environment and Tourism's chief director of air quality management and climate change, Peter Lukey.

South Africa's air quality was governed for 40 years by the Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Act, which was considered ineffective for a number of reasons, including the belief that it had not prevented the emergence of air pollution hotspots around the country.

"As a nation we have quite good air quality, but there are hotspots where the air quality is bad," said Lukey.

"We have no doubt that where the air is above our national health ambience standard, it's causing disease."

According to the report, the most serious national air pollution problem is the human health impacts related to inhalation of particularly household coal and wood emissions.

Lukey said the poor - the people least able to shield themselves from bad air quality - were most affected. "They carry a double burden - they're poor and they're sick," he said.

Other air pollution problems are high-ambient sulphur dioxide and concentrations of fine particulate matter resulting from primarily fuel combustion within the household, industrial and power-generation sectors.

The close proximity of heavy industries to residential areas was a historical legacy that had to be managed, said Lukey.

The report showcases cost-effective air quality monitoring systems that will be able to target individual industries responsible for polluting.

"Whoever breaks the law will have to face the ambit of the law," said Deputy Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Rejoice Mabudafhasi.

There are plans to make the report available in libraries and schools.