Studies in South Africa have revealed that living close to a mine or exposure to mine dust is a risk factor for asthma, as well as other respiratory and bronchial illnesses.
Mining is a major industry in South Africa, with materials such as gold and coal having helped to boost the country’s economy. However, there are some problems with the industry, among them, being the potential health hazards. In particular, mine dumps, when mines dump large amounts of crushed, sandy refuse, are a point of concern. Two studies by Vusumuzi Nkosi, Janine Wichmann, and Kuki Voyi published in 2014 and 2015 examined the effects mine dumps had on nearby communities and the prevalence of illnesses such as asthma, rhinoconjunctivitis, and respiratory diseases. One study looked at the health of adolescents, while the other examined the elderly.
Writing in The Conversation, Nkosi, Special Scientist in Public Health for the South African Medical Research Council, said that the researched showed “exposure to mine dust or living close to a mine is a risk factor for asthma.” It revealed that there was a higher prevalence of asthma symptoms in children compared to studies in cities such as Cape Town. Older people near mine dump sites were also more likely to show asthma symptoms compared to similar studies carried out in the US.
This issue is one that affects many in South Africa, with around 1.6 million people living on or next to mine dumps. These often poor and marginalized populations already face other issues in relation to poor health and access to healthcare. However, even taking other factors into account, the two studies still found a clear link between mine dumps and respiratory conditions. The growth of asthma rates in South Africa is putting pressure on the health system, making it imperative to look for solutions.
Nkosi suggests that the answer lies in long-term solutions for dust control. He says that research should be carried out to determine the determine and implement the best solutions. Previous attempts by mining companies to solve the problem have not been sufficient. For example, spraying mining dumps is often rendered useless when the water quickly dries up. Rehabilitating areas by growing grass, designed to catch the dust, only works until the dry season kills the grass. Nkosi offers the possibility of buffer zones between mining areas and settlements.
As populations close to mining areas continue to grow, asthma and other respiratory conditions could become a greater burden on the health system. It’s important to address this issue before it creates an even larger burden, contributing to that of non-communicable diseases in the country.
Asthma is not the only concern, either. Mine dump often contains toxic heavy metals and, in communities like those in Soweto, Johannesburg, it is killing plants and animals, as well as directly affecting people’s health. Both mining companies and the government need to take action to find solutions for the people living in these communities. However, some mining companies deny that there is a problem.
Christopher manages the project management staff at Hyderus and Baird’s CMC in five continents. He has been coordinating multi-country, multi-language studies for clients including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Novartis, Merck & Co., Inc., Abbott and Gavi since 2004.