Be aware of air


There is a lot in the news about greenhouse gases and their effect on climate change. There is also a lot written about the the appalling air pollution in Asia, which is the reason for many Asian’s habit of wearing face masks in an attempt to protect themselves.  But what is the position in South Africa – and why should we be concerned for our children?


Young children are particularly vulnerable to air quality because they are smaller than adults. With every breath, they take in more air per unit of adult weight than adults. This means that if air contains toxins, they will be breathing in proportionately more toxic air than adults do.  This is why air pollution is associated with childhood diseases such as pneumonia, asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory conditions.  These can be debilitating, resulting in children missing school and possibly causing long-lasting damage to their health and well-being.


But there are also implications for children’s developing brains. We are told that the first 1 000 days of life are crucial to a child’s future. This is the period when the brain undergoes the most critical and rapid growth – and the neurons (brain cells) and neural connections formed during this stage of brain development provide the foundation for all future, healthy brain structure and function.  In other words, this period is crucial for children’s ability to later learn and fulfill their potential in life.


Air pollution can affect children’s brains by several mechanisms.   Firstly, certain pollutants can break down the blood-brain barrier, which is a delicate membrane protecting the brain from toxic substances.  Once this barrier is breached, toxins may enter and damage the brain.  Secondly, very tiny air pollution particles can enter the body through the olfactory nerve and the gut.  One of these is Magnetite, which is common in urban outdoor pollution and is highly toxic to the brain.  Thirdly, some forms of pollutants formed from fossil fuel combustion can contribute to damage of brain cells that are needed to help neurons communicate throughout the brain.  These connections are vital for learning.

Where do you live?

In 2016, the South African authorities that track air pollution updated the regions of our country that have the most polluted air.  Not surprising, densely populated cities are on this list but other smaller areas also make the list due to mining operations in their proximity.  You might be surprised that the area in the top spot is Hartebeespoort. The reason for this is its location. It is close to both Johannesburg and Pretoria, as well as several mining operations. Overall, (according to the latest report) it ranks 162nd as the most air-polluted area in the world.

Here are the most air-polluted areas in our country:

  1. Hartebeespoort
  2. Tshwane
  3. Johannesburg
  4. Vereeniging
  5. Sebokeng
  6. Mpumalanga
  7. Zamdela 
  8. Secunda
  9. Dieploof
  10. Waterberg
  11. Witbank
  12. Ermelo
  13. Cape Town
  14. Durban
  15. Middelburg

So, what to do if you live in one of these areas?  There are some things that you can try, which is what I’ll write about in the next post.


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