Ideas generated around Event: GCRF Mine Dust and Health Workshop
We know that the risk of respiratory disease is linked to air pollution. We also know that certain groups are more vulnerable than others, such as children and elderly.
What is unknown is how the chemistry of the dust particles relate to the health impacts. Similarly, it is unknown how different exposures interact and how it is influenced by social factors such as housing, poverty, access to water and environmental factors.
What we need to know and prove is how health impacts are as a result to exposure to a particular source. We need to determine what is the safe level of exposure before people start showing health effects. We need to know how to account for mixed exposure from different sources with different compositions. Furthermore, much better health data is needed.
The group felt overwhelmed, helpless and as if they are facing an impossible situation without solutions. There is very limited awareness in the general population about the impact of pollution. And as a result of population growth and other socio-economic factors, more people are forced to live closer to mines, thus exposing themselves to the risks of mine dust.
There is compensation for workers who contract lung diseases as a result of working conditions, although not large enough amounts. There is no compensation for the environment yet. As mentioned by every other group, South Africa does have some good legislation in place. There are also plans to incorporate health impacts into the levy, i.e. if there is silicosis or TB cases at a mine, then they will have to pay more in terms of the risk levy. Furthermore, we have relatively good research capabilities in the country however funding remains an issue.
There are uncertainties in the field of exposure assessment and evaluating the health impacts. There currently is not a strong health systems that can link exposures to outcomes (health impacts). Both the quality and access to data makes it difficult to monitor the exposure. There is limitations and difficulties, for both communities and doctors, in identifying exposures as a source of health impacts. Access to healthcare in rural areas is a big issue. Finally, South Africa is in a situation where we desperately need economic development to provide jobs, but this needs to be weighed against the health impacts on our population.
How has it failed
High unemployment mitigates against people advocating for their own health. As a consequence of people desperate for jobs, they are prepared to go down a mine and pollute their lungs. Another common theme from this workshop is the lack of political will from government. Finally, there are socioeconomic factors that disempower people.
The idealistic of the group said no dust generation. In the meantime, we need to look at new growth areas such as clean energy or clean coal (if that is possible). We need to adopt integrated and multi-sectorial approaches to focus on the root cause of the problem. It is time to start enforcing the polluter pays principal, and use the money to solve the problem. It is also critical to enforce ongoing rehabilitation of mines.
Technology has an important part to play in in finding solutions and evaluating the issues. Drone can be used to evaluate exposure. With mobile technology, citizens can report pollution incidents consequent impacts on their health, water or the environment. DEA currently has this, but it is web based which is not easily accessible. It should be adapted so that it is mobile enabled as 80% of South Africans have access to a mobile phones. This is vital in rural areas for health and safety purposes, however for it to work, it does rely on government to be responsive.