A History Of Air Pollution In Pietermaritzburg Essay

A History Of Air Pollution In Pietermaritzburg

There is enough scientific evidence from various sources to support the fact that Pietermaritzburg is plagued by air pollution, which is worsened by the topography of the city. There is also much research proving the link between air pollution and asthma. Recent trials show, that not only does air pollution exacerbate asthma, it can actually cause asthma. However, there needs to be further research and trials done to scientifically prove this point. Medical statistics are extremely hard to come by in South Africa, which makes proving the link between air pollution causing asthma difficult. However, there is substantial evidence showing how air pollution triggers asthma attacks and makes them more severe.

Air Pollution in Pietermaritzburg: History – Past to Present day:

Air pollution in Pietermaritzburg is not a new problem. There are over two-hundred newspaper articles in the ‘Witness Newspaper Archives’, dating back from the 1980s to present day, reporting on this issue. Old and current photographs of the city often show smog ‘hanging’ over Pietermaritzburg. In the past, air pollution was caused mainly by cooking fires. However, today’s pollution has the added toxicity of man-made pollution from factories and motor vehicles (Banfield, 1992). ‘Twenty percent of Pietermaritzburg residents are affected by air pollution compared to five percent elsewhere in South Africa’ (Banfield, 1992). Pietermaritzburg’s air is monitored by the Msunduzi Municipality, which has recorded that the city’s air contains the following pollutants: particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen (oxides), ozone, carbon monoxide and many other harmful gases (Anthony, Nov 2007 and June 2007).

Figure 1: Showing the smog formation over Pietermaritzburg: (The Witness Newspaper, 28 June 2008)

(Wilson, 2008)

Location of Pietermaritzburg:

Pietermaritzburg, owing to bad town planning, has all of its main industry and landfill site in the city’s ‘bowl’. This has resulted in a worsening of air pollution. The N3 highway runs straight through the heart of Pietermaritzburg, as the number of large trucks and vehicles increase, so do the emissions from these vehicles. The timber plantations on the escarpment of the city’s basin and sugar plantations on the hilltops, add to the pollution in Pietermaritzburg as these plantations need to be burnt as routine farming practice. (Anthony, Nov 2007 and June 2007)

Pietermaritzburg’s geographical position – in a valley – causes a temperature inversion to occur. A temperature inversion is not a normal phenomenon, it only occurs in a valley (such as Pietermaritzburg) and the effect is worsened in winter. The cold air sinks down the sides of the valley and remains on the base of the valley – frost may form here. The warm air (along with pollutants) then rises and stops half way up the valley slope to form a ‘thermal belt’. This belt traps pollutants and enhances their bad properties and negative health impacts, as the pollutants are not able to escape – and they remain over the city and cause health hazardous smog to form.

The diagrams below show the effect of the Temperature Inversion in Pietermaritzburg:

(Sherriffs, 1989)

Major Contributors of Air Pollution:

The major contributors of air pollution in Pietermaritzburg are: emissions from industry, motor vehicles, fires at the landfill site and the burning of timber plantations and sugarcane plantations (Anthony, Nov 2007 and June 2007). Major industry, such as FFS Refiners, is guilty of adding to the pollution problem of Pietermaritzburg’s air.

Below are two graphs showing two of the major pollutants specific to the triggering and severity of asthma:

Figure 2: Graph showing the daily averages and acceptable level (in red) of Particulate Matter (air pollution) in Pietermaritzburg’s air

(Anthony, Nov 2007 and June 2007)

Figure 3: Graph showing the daily averages and acceptable level (in red) of Carbon Monoxide (air pollution) in Pietermaritzburg’s air

(Anthony, Nov 2007 and June 2007)

In both graphs pollutants exceed the acceptable national pollution guidelines (highlighted in red) in the months of June and July (winter months) – this is owing to the temperature inversion which worsens the pollution problem.

Health Problems:

Asthma is a chronic health condition, which causes inflammation and narrowing of the lung’s airways, which causes difficulty in breathing for the patient – and the patient may develop a dry, wheezy cough. Pollutants cause the restriction of the airways, as the pollution particles aggravate the airways of the lungs.

Dr R.Gilbert, a general practitioner in Pietermaritzburg with an interest in asthma, states that the number of asthma patients that he treats is much higher than one would expect to find in a town the size of Pietermaritzburg. Dr Gilbert mentioned that Dr W.Robates, an ENT specialist, and Dr A.F.Jooma, a paediatrician, supported his views that the air pollution in Pietermaritzburg is a very real problem, which, without doubt, has a significant effect on the control and severity of asthma.

He also states that many of his patients who leave Pietermaritzburg for significant lengths of time and then return – often do not suffer from their asthma condition while out of the city. However, on returning, their allergies and asthma symptoms reoccur (Gilbert, 2010, Robates, 2010 and Jooma, 2010).

In a telephonic interview with Umbalica Balrashie, the regional sales manager for Glaxo Smith Kline, a leading pharmaceutical company which promotes asthma products, information was provided noting that the three highest sales areas for asthma medication in Kwa-Zulu Natal are Richards Bay, Durban South and Pietermaritzburg. Both Richards Bay and Durban South are highly industrialised areas with significant air pollution emissions, when compared to Pietermaritzburg – but owing to Pietermaritzburg’s temperature inversion, the pollutants are intensified and therefore, the triggering and severity of asthma attacks in Pietermaritzburg are equal to these two industrialised areas (Balrashie, 2010).

Community Views and Issues:

Many residents in Pietermaritzburg have complained about the issue of air pollution in the city. In the year 1993, Pietermaritzburg residents spent nearly R1,5 million on asthma medication, stating that the ‘city’s pollution has significantly contributed to these costs’ (Quinlain, 1993). There have been many cases reported of families moving to Pietermaritzburg, and developing asthma or suffering from worsening existing asthma conditions, simply owing to the exposure and intensity of the city’s air pollution, which is enhanced and worsened by the temperature inversion.

Residents in Pietermaritzburg have complained continuously about the state of the city’s air. However, the Msunduzi Municipality have done little about the pollution levels, as these levels of emissions are under the accepted and legal levels during most of the year. What the municipality has failed to promote to National Government is the fact that Pietermaritzburg is situated in a valley – which causes a temperature inversion, ultimately worsening the levels of pollutants hanging above the city (in smog). This results in the pollutants being trapped over Pietermaritzburg.

Industry and the Local Government’s Role:

Industry is responsible for the output of toxic emissions, which need to be monitored.

Local Government need to take a more stringent and committed stance in relation to industry emission levels.

The government needs to create awareness about air pollution and its negative health effects. Car emissions are great contributors to health problems (such as asthma). Pollution warning systems have been taught to the public in the United Kingdom (UK) by the government. South Africa needs to do the same (Hutton, 2010). The South African government has recently (March 2010) invested in a new ‘air quality monitoring system’ (O’Donnell, 2010), which monitors the amount of pollutants in the air and the quality of air (whether good or bad). ‘The major areas of concern that need air-quality assessment and monitoring include transportation areas such as highway routes and main roads, urban areas, municipalities and local community exposure.’ (O’Donnell, 2010) – this suggests that Pietermaritzburg should be monitored closely along the main highway through the city and where industry is situated.

However, for this to be successful, the local government needs to maintain the monitoring system and it costs a lot of money. This maintenance of the monitoring system needs to be put into South Africa’s yearly budget for the municipalities. National government needs to constantly assess the ‘problematic pollution’ cities, such as Pietermaritzburg. This monitoring system should show improvement in the air. If not, the government can ascertain from the monitoring system which pollutants are most rife and where they are being emitted from. National government, together with Local government, could then work on strategies to lower the toxic emissions which ultimately cause health problems.


N3 Highway –

The N3 highway is a problem as heavy duty trucks create huge emissions. The railroads should be reintroduced to transport containers from Durban Harbour to Johannesburg. This would dramatically reduce the number of big trucks on the highway and as they often travel in the early hours of the morning, air pollution would be reduced as the temperature inversion is most significant in the early hours of the morning.

Industry –

Local Government needs to work with industry in Pietermaritzburg to improve the amount of emissions that factories produce. As discussed, in an interview with Mr J.Pather, the Head of Environmental Health Services at Msunduzi Municipality, industry have complied in many instances to reduce emissions. From information supplied by Mr C.J.Anthony, Pollution Control Coordinator at Msunduzi Municipality, many specific air pollution issues have been dealt with. For example, Grey’s hospital’s oil furnace has been replaced with paraffin (Anthony, Nov 2007 and June 2007). No further industry should be built in the city’s bowl, this will contain the present air pollution.

Pietermaritzburg’s New England Landfill Site –

The New England Landfill Site needs to be moved out of the city’s bowl. The particulate fall out is unacceptable and because of the temperature inversion, the pollution emissions are worsened. The municipality has attempted to improve conditions but the fact is that the landfill site needs to be moved elsewhere.

Burning –

There are strict regulations concerning the burning of forests and sugarcane. These need to be monitored and implemented to prevent fire emissions in the wrong seasons.

Monitoring –

National Government needs to work closely with Local Government and provide funds which will allow the municipality to upgrade and maintain air pollution monitoring equipment.


Economic –

Msunduzi Municipality is in a crisis. The control of air pollution is a low priority at present.

It would be a huge expense to fix railroads and to move the Landfill Site.

Pietermaritzburg lacks both funds and skills to drive the concept of ‘clean air’.

Environmental –

Pietermaritzburg is surrounded by timber plantations and sugarcane farms. This cannot be changed.


It is scientifically proven that air pollution triggers and increases the severity of asthma attacks. The link between air pollution and asthma is an accepted fact by specialists throughout the world. ‘In recent years scientists have shown that air pollution from cars, factories and power plants is a major cause of asthma attacks.’ Further research is currently underway in the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States of America (USA) to prove this theory.

Pietermaritzburg has high levels of particulate matter and ozone which are two pollutants directly responsible for the triggering of asthma attacks. The temperature inversion in Pietermaritzburg is a known geographical fact – which worsens the pollution significantly. It is therefore scientifically correct to state that air pollution in Pietermaritzburg is worsened by the temperature inversion and this air pollution triggers and worsens asthma attacks.

Click the button below to order this paper.