Government has put stricter new regulations in place to curb air pollution - but given companies a reprieve from complying.

Johannesburg - They may be thousands of kilometres apart, but for Dr Rebecca Garland, the toxic brown haze that blankets Joburg’s townships in winter isn’t that far removed from the smog-filled scenes in Beijing that sent its pollution monitors skyrocketing last month.

“We’ve all driven to Soweto on a winter’s day and seen that smoky haze,” explains Garland, who worked in Beijing to help regulate the city’s air pollution prior to the 2008 Olympics.

“We don’t have the same air pollution index as China, but I wouldn’t be surprised if similar values (to Beijing) were found in our townships in the middle of winter.”

Fine particulate matter (PM) are particles found in the air – including dust, dirt, soot, smoke and liquid droplets of PM2.5 and PM10 (particles smaller than 2.5 microns and 10 microns, respectively) in aerodynamic diameter. This particulate matter is most likely to cause respiratory conditions, cardiovascular problems and early death.

In Beijing last month, pollution levels exceeded 300ug/m3 – deemed by the World Health Organisation to be hazardous – and even surpassed 700ug/m3 – described as an “airpocolypse”.

South Africa’s 2012 State of Air Report and National Air Quality Indicator has shown how townships like Diepsloot, Alexandra and Ivory Park, where residents burn coal to cook and heat their homes, continue to exceed PM10 annual averages. In Diepsloot and Ivory Park, the report shows how this surpasses 250ug/m3 every year.

This week, Garland, now based at the climate studies, modelling and environmental health research unit at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, brought some of SA’s foremost air pollution scientists together to understand how better to manage SA’s dirty air. More needs to be done, she says, to understand rural pollution and its impacts.

Prof Stuart Piketh, of the school of physical and chemical sciences at North West University, told the conference, millions of mainly impoverished South Africans living in townships and informal settlements were “choking to death” from fine particulates and high sulphur concentrations.

“The most important challenge in SA is… the household burning of coal and wood… But what are we doing to make it better? Not enough. We need to move from monitoring what we know is a challenge to coming up with strategies to manage the challenge.

“We’ve been measuring in many of these places for almost 10 years now, and we’re still measuring. We need to move towards a strategy to resolve how we’re going to reduce emissions.

“There’s a fixation on compliance monitoring. We’ve set ambient air quality standards and we’re monitoring like mad to see whether we now comply with those standards, but unless we do something about the results…” He shrugged.

Piketh believes the domestic burning of fuel is poorly understood. “In the projects that have been rolled out, one sees people move back to what they’re comfortable with very quickly, irrespective of whether they’ve got access to the alternative.”

Government-fuelled campaigns like Basa Njengo Magogo – an alternative low-smoke fire-lighting method believed to improve air quality and the respiratory hazards associated with indoor air pollution – are “insignificant”. “I don’t think any of those projects have shown that if you roll it out on a massive scale, it would make a significant contribution, and I’m not sure if there’s been enough follow-up to see if those projects are sustainable. The real answer is probably electrification with some sort of programme to ensure people don’t go back to coal.”

The state of air report highlights how PM10 is still the “greatest national cause for concern” and warns that “it’s clear that many South Africans may not be breathing air that is not harmful to their health and well-being”.

But it also shows how PM10 concentrations have dropped within the annual standard in Cape Town and eThekwini in the past seven years. “The success story is Durban, and that was the first air priority area,” says Piketh.

“Certainly the efforts made to reduce the emissions have had tangible results. I don’t think we’ve had the same success in the other priority areas yet – and that’s because of implementation.”

Thabo Setshedi, assistant director of air quality at the Department of Environmental Affairs, says strides are being made to expand the national air quality monitoring network.

“We’re not winning in the townships – we’re still facing serious problems in Alexandra and Diepsloot with household burning, and I’m not happy with the progress in Vaal and Highveld priority areas where there’s a lot of non-compliance. But Durban and Ethekwini are a success and that’s encouraging.” - Saturday Star