This South African Scientist Is Helping Combat Air Pollution
By Andrew Wight
South African scientist Dr Raeesa Moolla struggled to breathe as a child with asthma and allergies — now she is helping to figure out the health impacts of the things that people breathe in, particularly in the Global South.
Moolla, a researcher at the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, says she has always been interested in the effect of pollution on health.
“The main focus of my current research is looking at the health impact of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), in the transport sector,” Moolla says.
She says this began in her PhD studies when she looked at the occupational health of public transport bus employees, and the potential inhalation of BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes).
“These pollutants are extremely dangerous, and benzene is a level I carcinogen, so exposure should be limited,” she said. “Reduction in exposure is essential for healthy air and healthy working environments.”
Moolla says that this is an under-researched field, particularly in South Africa.
“In a country where poverty, housing, access to basic necessities such as clean water and health care is a challenge, air pollution is sometimes pushed to the back,” she says, “There is also financial implications of implementing changes to pollution exposure and release, and this sometimes can be challenging to get site permissions and/or funding.”
Inspired by Smoke
Moolla says her Eureka moment came in her final year of her undergraduate degree when she was involved in a study on how indoor cooking smoke affects children
“My study involved looking at the ‘Basa Ngogo’ method, and set my forthcoming career in motion,” she says.
Moolla explains that the ‘basa njengo magogo’ , which translates as “the old women’s fire” was a cooking method to release less smoke, resulting in lower levels of particulate matter (air pollution).
“Lower income communities were shown a method of burning the fire from “bottom up” which reduces the pollution released during firelighting and ignition,” she says, “The main findings were that indoor air pollution, specifically particulate matter and total suspended particles were reduced , reducing the chances of affecting vulnerable populations ( such as children) from further affecting their lungs as PM and TSP are absorbed into the lungs and alveoli and can lead to pulmonary diseases such as asthma.”
Moolla says that overall, a reduction in indoor air pollution can assist with better health and thus assist children with improved development and performance.
Air Pollution In The Global South
Moolla grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“I always loved geography, nature and had a keen interest in weather and climate systems,” she says.
The area that Moolla studies is especially relevant in South Africa as she says there is a higher presence of indoor air pollution especially amongs lower income communities as low grade fuels are used for heating and cooking.
“This is especially noticed in the global south where a lack of electricity and advanced cooking methods are present,” she says, “Occupational exposure is also increased with older technologies, such as at fueling depots where pumping stations do not have exposure filters fitted, etc.”
Moolla says the transport sector makes a big difference, with emissions from older cars, but also a lack of public transport systems and dependence on personal cars and old ‘taxis’ (mini buses) which is very evident in the Global South.
Moolla says the Global South possesses many different pollution threats.
“We have a high rate of biomass burning, aeolian dust, mine dust (and acid mine drainage), and a high rate of reliance on fossil fuel usage,” she says, “However, we base many models and emissions inventories from the Global North, which is challenging as the underlying scenarios are different, including the climatic and environmental factors.”
Moolla explains that she is part of many international organisations, representing the African continent as an atmospheric chemist, and she is able to bring the specific continents issues and challenges to the forefront.
“This has also allowed a greater depth of research and wide ranch of collaborations which allow further research,” she says.
Another South Africa-based researcher working to reduce pollution impacts on communities is Emmie Chiyindiko.
Chiyindiko is a chemist exploring green chemistry: reducing the carbon footprint by making industrial processes more efficient. The 26-year-old, now a chemistry PhD researcher at South Africa’s University of Free State, says she studies catalysts (materials that speed up chemical reactions) in order to find better, cheaper and less toxic versions.
Photo Source: RAEESA MOOLLA