India has been hit by deadly air pollution – here's how it compares to the air quality in a Joburg township

Business Insider SA
air pollution
  •  The air pollution in Alexandra township in Johannesburg is significantly higher than the country’s and World Health Organisation’s maximum air quality standards.
  • The WHO estimates that 4.2-million people die each year as a result of ambient air pollution, and in November officials in the Indian city of Delhi declared a public health emergency over the air quality.
  • Particulate matter (PM) levels are how officials determine an area’s air quality, and experts say that in winter the air in South Africa’s informal settlements is dangerously polluted.
  • For more visit Business Insider South Africa.

At 5pm on Wednesday afternoon, a snapshot of the air pollution in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township –  home to more than 180,000 people – was almost 10 times the World Health Organisation’s threshold for healthy air. But it still remained a fifth of what Delhi residents experienced during the worst of that city’s air pollution crisis earlier this month. 

The air in Alex – as the township is called – contained 218 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) air of tiny inhalable particles (PM2.5). In the Indian capital, those levels almost reached 1,000µg/m3. Schools were closed and flights were cancelled, as pilots could not see through the fog. The World Health Organisation estimates that 4.2 million people die each year as a result of ambient air pollution. 

One way of measuring air pollution is to gauge how much particulate matter (PM) is in the air. PM2.5 – referring to the diameter of these tiny particles (2.5µg)  – are so small that 30 of them together is as long as a human hair.

They are released into the air from cars and burning fuel or waste, among other things, and this is a particular issue in South Africa’s informal settlements, where a lack of electrification and poor housing construction means that people burn coal inside their houses without proper ventilation, and locals burn refuse to dispose of it, as there is poor governmental waste removal.

air pollution
The WHO estimates that 4.2-million people die each year as a result of ambient air pollution.

South Africa’s current standards, which are not as stringent as the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, recommend that these pollutants are kept below 40µg/m3 for PM2.5 when averaged out over 24 hours. The WHO advises that PM2.5 levels be kept below 25µg/m3 over the day. 

For the month of October, Delhi’s PM2.5 concentration averaged out at 192µg/m3, while Alexandra’s was 60µg/m3

However, October is not a “bad” month for a highveld area. Winter months, when the air gets trapped over the city and does not disperse, are a problem, but Alexandra’s data for this period was not available on the South African Air Quality Information System

“On average, we are not like China or [India’s] Delhi,” says Rebecca Garland, acting research group leader for climate and air quality modeling at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. “But that said, on the Highveld in winter in a township where fuel is used for heating and cooking, those are really high concentrations.”

The Department of Environmental Affairs did not respond to questions.

Receive a daily update with all our latest news: click here.

Also from Business Insider South Africa: