A socio-economic and spatial investigation into the health implications of air pollution in Richards Bay, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
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There is increasing recognition of the links between air pollution and human health. Epidemiological studies have shown that there are numerous air pollutants that are associated with indoor energy use and with the production processes of industries, and most represent some sort of health implication. However, in-depth and fundamental knowledge of the health impact relationship of most pollutants is limited. This research evaluates the socio-economic and spatial aspects of the health implications of air pollution in Richards Bay (located 200 km north of Durban), KwaZulu-Natal. The research explores community perceptions and complaints relating to human health impacts emanating from air pollution in Richards Bay. The research is informed by a multi-conceptual framework (political economy incorporating political ecology, place perspectives and environmental justice) which influenced the methods chosen in conducting the research. Standard quantitative and qualitative methods were employed in the study to generate data relating to the research objectives. The process of triangulation which is the use of multiple methods that cuts across the qualitativequantitative divide was used. The various sources of information validate and clarify data by deepening and widening an understanding of the main issues under examination. The research was implemented in various communities in Richards Bay that reflect socioeconomic differences, which contributes significantly to ascertain whether health impacts are differentially experienced by different socio-economic groups. Furthermore, the research cross-tabulated experiences, perceptions and coping strategies of different socio-economic groups in the area, especially in relation to upper, middle and lower income clusters. The spatial aspect of the research (mapping of key social and health variables) is a major contribution of this research, which draws from the field of medical geography. Information on the main residential areas was illicitied from documents providing background details on Richards Bay. A purposive sampling approach was adopted to identify the seven communities, namely, Alton, Aquadene/ Brackenham, Arboretum, Meer-en-See, Empangeni Rail, Nseleni and Umhlathuze. Simple random point sampling was used to identify the households within the communities. The number of households in each community was determined using proportionate sampling. Four hundred and seventy nine housholds (479) were interviewed which was deemed to be a statistically relevant sampling size at a 95% confidence level. The study findings indicate that the lower income areas (Nseleni, Empangeni Rail and Umhlathuze) and the middle income areas (Aquadene/ Brackenham and Arboretum) have a more youthful population with a significant number being children, while the upper income areas (Alton and Meer en See) have a more elderly population. A similar trend was also found in relation to household size. There are clearly major variations in household income and employment types in Richards Bay, linked in part to the geographical location of communities based on economic and racial groups. Lower earning respondents were located mostly in the lower status areas which were classified as predominantly African populated areas as per the historical race classification and apartheid segregated areas. More than half of the respondents indicated that industrial smoke was the cause of their present health conditions. Other stated reasons were wide ranging and therefore there was no discernible pattern that emerged in relation to the causes for poor health experienced by the affected household member. However, the data did show that more respondents living in middle/ upper income areas identified causes. Reported health conditions include allergies (30.9%), coughing (29.8%), wheezing (25.5%), chest pains (18.4%) and asthmatic bronchitis/ asthma (17.7%). With regards to health care, the findings from the study show that the economically better off communities (Alton, Aquadene/ Brackenham, Arboretum and Meer en See) used the private, more expensive health care sector while generally households in lower income areas tend to rely on public or traditional health care facilities. An interesting finding was that most respondents rate their general health status as either excellent, good (more respondents from the middle/ upper income areas than the lower income areas) or satisfactory (more respondents from Umhlathuze). A large majority of the respondents reported air pollution as the main problem that is associated with industries in Richards Bay while the health impacts of pollutants from the industries manufacturing processes was the second main cause. The areas deemed to be the most polluted were generally in or in close proximity to the industrial area or the port area. Lower income areas tendered to be most polluted, according to respondents residing in these areas or who lived in similar low income areas. The majority of respondents were found to be living in dwellings/ households made from dwellings constructed with brick and asbestos, brick and zinc, stone and other traditional materials which is indicative of housing in the poorer communities who live in informal dwellings/ households and may be a causal contributing factor of the poor health status of these communities. The participatory mapping exercise conducted during the focus group discussion revealed that participants identified the industrial areas (including the port and surrounds) as the most polluted areas. Areas outside Richards Bay were considered to be the least polluted areas. The research findings indicate that there are a complex mix of socio-economic, environmental and spatial dynamics that influence air pollution and health impacts. Thus, health issues in the context of widespread air pollution concerns are linked to social, political and environmental aspects that require urgent attention. Air pollution and health impacts remain major concerns in many parts of the world, especially in areas of high levels of industrial development such as Richards Bay. The results of this research, therefore supports the findings of other researchers who reveal that communities/ neighborhoods of lower income status are most likely to bear the brunt of negative impacts and that air pollution from indoor uses of energy, behavioral factors such as cigarette smoking and industrial processes contribute to an individual’s/ community’s quality of life.