Johannesburg – Joburg is the most radioactive city on the planet, thanks to its gold-mining past, says Earthlife Africa.
“During the late 1800s, uranium was merely considered a waste product, and was therefore dumped without ever being recovered,” said the organisation’s Joburg spokesperson, Makoma Lekalakala.
“Since abandoned mines were not properly decommissioned, the tailing disposal facilities all around the city have a relatively high uranium concentration today.”
It is especially bad during windier months, from around August and September, when residents complain about the effects of the dangerous dust particles that invade their homes and make them and their families sick.
“We are concerned that very little is being done to protect the people living in the mostly residential areas around these abandoned mines. It is important, especially at this time when the government is pushing for more nuclear energy, to emphasise the connection between gold mining and the devastating pollution from uranium,” said Lekalakala.
Earthlife says that in 2017, the Benchmark Foundation, an NGO that works with communities in these impacted areas, conducted a study that found that 56% of the area’s residents suffer from respiratory diseases.
“We are witness to the misery and devastation around the areas of Riverlea, Snake Park and Diepkloof.
“On numerous occasions over the years, those who live near uranium mines have voiced concerns over the impacts on public health, reporting high incidences of lung and stomach cancers, leukaemia, as well as birth defects. There is no safe uranium mining, and those who live around these areas or where there have been tailings [materials left over after the process of separating the valuable fraction from the uneconomic fraction of an ore] suffer more than others. These are the people who are most vulnerable and likely to die prematurely, due to the unbearable environment they live in.”
Uranium mining also has a negative impact on the environment. Concerns include environmental degradation; contamination of soil, public amenities and land; and reduced ecosystems viability. This could lead to the quarantining of land for future beneficial use.
Lekalakala said: “As devastating as the Covid-19 pandemic has been, this is a great opportunity for South Africa to rethink our governance system. To rethink our energy systems. To rethink what is it that we can do to protect our biodiversity. South Africa has lots of wind and sun to build and develop a formidable renewable energy sector, that is decentralised and better able to meet the energy needs of our people. SA should not even be considering any more nuclear or fossil fuels.”
The City of Joburg, in marking International Day for Clean Air for Blue Skies earlier this month, said air quality controls were in place.
Member of the mayoral committee for environment and infrastructure services, Mpho Moerane, launched an air quality monitoring sensor at the Braamfontein Rea Vaya bus station and visited the Jabavu air quality monitoring station in Soweto.
“Clean air is important for the health and livelihood of people and it is important to raise public awareness around the actions to improve air quality,” he said.
Some of the interventions include air pollution control by-laws and vehicle emissions strategy, as well as a community dust-monitoring campaign.
“Air pollution is the single-greatest environmental risk to human health, hence the city’s efforts to put measures in place to mitigate climate change,” he said.
The city collaborated with the Deutsche Gesellshaft Für Internationale Zusammenabeit in joining the global community to commemorate the first International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into stark reality the impact of air pollution on the respiratory system. The city has eight air-quality monitoring stations, but the focus is on low-income communities that rely on coal stoves. Since 2004, it has spent more than R5 million building and revamping the stations. The data collected informs decisions on managing air pollution.