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04 June 2019 | Story Valentino Ndaba | Photo Charl Devenish
Prof Cathryn Tonne
Air pollution not only costs lives, it costs money too. Pictured is Prof Cathryn Tonne presenting a guest lecture on air pollution at the Bloemfontein Campus.

Health effects associated with ambient air pollution (AAP) have been well documented. Subsequently, the relationship between pollution and financial outcomes have also become a focus for case studies globally. An Environmental Research journal article revealed that “low and middle-income countries are disproportionately affected by the global burden of adverse health effects caused by AAP”. 

A high price to pay

In 2012, high concentrations of air pollution caused 7.4% of all deaths, costing South Africa up to 6% of its Gross Domestic Product. According to the recent International Growth Centre study conducted by senior University of Cape Town researchers, this is a direct consequence of the country’s heavy dependence of fossil fuels, a source of health-damaging air pollution and greenhouse pollutants.

Stunted human and economic growth

These South African statistics are attested to by Prof Cathryn Tonne who recently presented a guest lecture on air pollution which was hosted by the University of the Free State (UFS) Business School.

“Air pollution can affect economic development through several pathways, and health is an important one. Air pollution is linked to shorter life expectancy, chronic disease, asthma exacerbation and many other health outcomes that result in absenteeism from work and school. These have large direct costs to the health system.” 

Prof Tonne says that air pollution exposure in children is linked to reduced cognitive development, with important impacts on human capital. As a result, children are not reaching their full potential in terms of neurodevelopment, which has an effect on their income prospects and the economy as a whole. 

Resolving a looming disaster

Technology may be employed to radically clean the air. Cities need to lead in the reduction of air pollution by promoting renewable energy, using active transport such as walking or cycling, and investing in infrastructure to make this safe and attractive. 

With researchers playing a major role in strengthening the case for aggressive air pollution control, the government needs to implement policies in order to control sources of air pollution. This global health and economic issue also requires individuals and communities to play their part to improve air quality.

News Archive

Research by experts published in Nature
2011-06-02

 
The members of the research group are, from the left, front: Christelle van Rooyen, Mariana Erasmus, Prof. Esta van Heerden; back: Armand Bester and Prof. Derek Litthauer.
Photo: Gerhard Louw

A  research article on the work by a team of experts at our university, under the leadership of Prof. Esta van Heerden, and counterparts in Belgium and the USA has been published in the distinguished academic journal Nature today (Thursday, 2 June 2011).

The article – Nematoda from the terrestrial deep subsurface of South Africa – sheds more light on life in the form of a small worm living under extreme conditions in deep hot mines. It was discovered 1,3 km under the surface of the earth in the Beatrix Goldmine close to Welkom and is the first multi-cellular organism that was found so far beneath the surface of the earth. The worm (nematode) was found in between a rock face that is between 3 000 and 12 000 years old.

The research can shed some new light on the possibility of life on other planets, previously considered impossible under extreme conditions. It also expands the possibilities into new areas where new organisms may be found.

These small invertebrates live in terrestrial soil subjected to stress almost for 24 hours They live through sunshine, rain, scorching temperatures and freezing conditions. Through time they developed a means to cope with harsh conditions. Terrestrial nematodes (roundworms, not to be confused or related to earthworms) are among those very tough small invertebrates that deal with those conditions everywhere. After insects they are the most dominant multi-cellular (metazoan) species on the planet having a general size of 0,5 to 1 mm and are among the oldest metazoans on the planet, Nature says in a statement on the article.

They inhabit nearly every imaginable habitat form the deep seas to the acid in pitcher . Some nematodes simply eat bacteria and these are the ones we study here. Terrestrial nematodes have developed a survival stage that can take them through hard times (absence of food, extreme temperatures, too little oxygen, crowding, and more).

At the head of the research was Prof. Gaetan Borgonie of the Ghent University in Belgium and a world leader in the discipline of nematode research. He was brought into contact with the South African research leader, Prof. Esta van Heerden, who set up a cooperation agreement with the University of Ghent and Prof. Borgonie. Prof. Van Heerden manages the Extreme Biochemistry group at the UFS and the research was funded by several research grants.

The search for worms began in earnest in 2007, but it was soon clear that the sampling strategy was insufficient. A massive sampling campaign in 2008-2009 in several mines led to the discovery of several nematodes and the new nematode species Halicephalobus mephisto. It is named after the legend of Faust where the devil, also known as the lord of the underworld is called Mephistopheles.

Nature says special filters had to be designed and installed on various boreholes. Unfortunately, there is no easy way of finding a magic formula and designs had to be adapted by trial and error; improving existing designs all the time. The work of the UFS Mechanical Workshop, which manufactured, adapted and helped design it, was crucial in this respect. Filters were left on the holes for varying periods, sometimes for a few hours and sometimes for months. Prof. Derek Litthauer from the UFS played a big role in sampling, filter designs and coming up with ideas for names for the new nematode with Prof. Borgonie.

Research showed that the nematodes can live in the deep for up to 12 000 years. Three students – Armand Bester, Mariana Erasmus and Christelle van Rooyen from the UFS – did the work on this.

The importance of multi-cellular animals living in the ultra-deep subsurface is twofold: The nematodes graze on the existing bacterial population and influence their turnover. Secondly, if more complex multi-cellular organisms can survive in the deep subsurface on earth, this may be good news when looking for life on other planets where the surface is considered too inhospitable (e.g. Mars). Complex life forms can be found in ecosystems previously thought to be uninhabitable. Nature says this expands the possibilities into new areas where new organisms may be discovered.

Future research will focus on selective boreholes to look for more metazoans, so that a better idea of the complexity of the ecosystems there can be obtained. It will also look for metazoans in the deep subsurface on other continents to determine similarities and differences.

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