Electricity saves lives

Andrew Kenny on the hazards of burning coal, wood and paraffin.

THE DANGERS TO human health of burning coal, wood and paraffin in households are thousands of times greater than the dangers of using electricity generated in power stations, be they coal, nuclear, gas or any other. Over 90 per cent of Eskom's electricity comes from coal-fired power stations. Here the coal is burned completely, 99 per cent of the particulates (smoke) are removed and the flue gas is pushed into the air through 300 metre high stacks where pollutants such as sulphur dioxide are dispersed to such an extent that the effects on health are very small.

In the poor households of the townships, shanty towns and rural areas, the coal is incompletely burned, often in dwellings without chimneys, and pollutants such as particulates, sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxides, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide reach dangerous levels in living areas, with a high toll of death and disease. Burning of wood is at least as bad. The mortality rate from acute respiratory infections is 270 times higher for South African children than those in western Europe, and much of the reason for this is the high exposure of our children to smoke from coal and wood fires in dwellings.

Paraffin has three hazards: air pollution, poisoning and fire. Again, incomplete combustion releases carbon monoxide and tiny particles of tarry substances. Because paraffin is clear and often kept in soft drink bottles, small children can accidentally drink it, causing at least 200 deaths a year and 16,000 hospital admissions. Cheap paraffin lamps and stoves are poorly designed and will explode into flames if knocked over. Every year there are about 1,300 deaths from fire, 9,000 hospitalisations and 20,000 dwellings destroyed. Paraffin is the main cause. These fires often leave the survivors with hideous skin damage and an infant so burned might well spend the rest of his or her life severely disfigured. You only have to drive past townships such as Soweto and Guguletu to see the pall of pollution lying over them from coal, wood and paraffin fires. Almost every week, the newspapers carry brief stories of fires that have destroyed hundreds of shacks.

There are various transitional solutions such as smokeless coal and liquid petrol gas. The latter burns very cleanly with no smoke and is a far smaller fire hazard than paraffin. However, the long-term solution is electricity. It is clean, versatile and convenient and the best form of energy for almost all domestic applications. The problem is that in many instances poor households cannot afford the cost of the connection, which has to be subsidised, nor can they afford enough electricity to make its supply economic. The price of electrical appliances, such as stoves, is also beyond their means and many continue to burn coal and wood after they have got electricity.