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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

UFS hones focus to nurture world-class research - Business Day
2006-02-10

 

Sue Blaine
THE University of the Free State plans to concentrate academic study in five areas to strengthen its status as a research institution, the university said yesterday.

The Bloemfontein-based university will focus on areas it classes as development (economics, health, literacy and other human activities) and social transformation — an analysis of how South African society is changing from a philosophical and political viewpoint.

The other three research areas are new technologies, water resources and security, and food production and security.

“It makes sense to concentrate the university’s human resources, infrastructure, financial resources and intellectual expertise,” said university rector and vice-chancellor Prof Frederick Fourie.

The move introduces a style of research that matches international trends.

Universities in Canada, Britain and Australia are setting up their research departments in this way.

In SA, the universities of Stellenbosch, the Witwatersrand, Cape Town and KwaZulu-Natal have embarked on similar strategies.

Fourie gave the example of his alma mater, the US’s Harvard University, whose Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centre is an example of “clustering” on a larger scale.

The centre is a collaboration with Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California, Santa Barbara, the Museum of Science, Boston, and universities in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Japan.

Fourie said the modern research world was so diverse and complex that no university could cover all bases so it was better to establish areas of expertise that made it different from its peer institutions.

Having scientists and researchers work in teams meant certain issues could be researched and developed in a multidisciplinary manner. “I think it’s the only way in which any university can excel. This will help SA become world class in selected areas,” Fourie said.

It is in chemistry that the cluster model has already had its most visible results, with a slice of the university’s on-campus pharmacological testing company Farmovs, established in the 1980s, sold to the US’s Parexel International.

The company is one of the largest biopharmaceutical outsourcing organisations in the world, providing knowledge-based contract research, medical marketing and consulting services to the global pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device industries, according to Biospace, an internet-based company providing resources and information to the life science industry.

President Thabo Mbeki, in his state of the nation address last Friday, committed government to allocating more resources to research, development and innovation, and increasing the pool of young researchers in SA.

He said government would “continue to engage the leadership of our tertiary institutions focused on working with them to meet the nation’s expectations with regard to teaching and research”.

The university used to be home to several A-rated scientists, who are considered by a peer review, conducted by the National Research Foundation, to be world leaders in their fields, but had lost them to other institutions. Fourie hopes to lure them back, and with them postgraduate students and funding for their work.

“At universities where you get a star researcher they tend to attract people and funding; if they leave they take that with them,” he said.

Fourie said R50m would be spent on the project, with some already spent last year and the last disbursements to be made next year.

There is R10m in seed money to gather experts and improve equipment and infrastructure, and R17m has been invested in chemistry equipment and staff.

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