Wildfire smoke ignites health fears
To dispel rumours that smoke emanating from smouldering spots around the Greater Knysna area – especially from sawdust burning at Geelhoutvlei Timbers in Karatara – was having adverse health effects on residents of the Knysna municipal area, the Garden Route District Municipality (GRDM) released a statement last week disclaiming these fears, saying there was no severe health threat to the surrounding communities.
This follows enquiries by an alarmed public, and a seemingly panic-stricken Facebook post on the Knysna Golden Girls site on 12 November warning in capital letters and exclamation marks that Knysna was in dire danger.
Site commenter Sarah Curtis’ post said an independent expert would be setting up an air quality monitoring device in Knysna for a week to render a written report on “what we’re all breathing in at present”.
Pollutant levels ‘through the roof’
According to her post, “the reports from George (where our expert is based and currently monitoring) are HORRIFIC” and “There is a clear, obvious and ongoing threat to public health RIGHT NOW”. Curtis’ post included references to *“pm10” and “pm2.5” levels as already being “through the roof ’’.
In the GRDM statement released on Tuesday 13 November, the district municipality said that the emissions are caused by biomass burning at Geelhoutvlei Timbers. “This area contains pine wood chips from untreated wood only… It was already burning before the wildfire destroyed the wood mill,” the statement said.
Pollutants emitted from this smouldering area are “mainly oxides of nitrogen, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, CO2 and small concentrations of volatile organic compounds”, GRDM stated, adding that “these compounds normally form part of the pollutants emitted when biomass burns”. It went on to say the fire poses no severe health threat but will result in a nuisance effect, “depending on the distance from the source, the wind speed and or direction thereof.”
The statement did mention that, during a joint operations meeting held on the morning of 13 November, a decision was taken that Geelhoutvlei’s owners should be informed that the situation is triggering a National Environmental Management Act, Section 30 incident.
‘Owner must take reasonable steps’
According to the GRDM statement, an incident like this involves, among others, the unexpected, sudden and uncontrolled release from a major emission such as a fire and that subsequently, the owner of the property must take all reasonable measures to contain and minimise the effects of the incident, undertake cleanup procedures and remedy the effects of the incident. The statement added that, should the property owners not respond to this instruction, the relevant authority may follow steps and implement measures it considers necessary to contain and minimise the effects.
Social media abounded with news that Geelhoutvlei last week started taking appropriate action, which was confirmed by GRDM on 14 November.
A Geelhoutvlei Timber representative declined to comment on the situation.
GRDM’s air quality manager Dr Johann Schoeman confirmed that only untreated pine wood chips were burnt at Geelhoutvlei Timbers. “It is the fine particulates in smoke that poses the highest risk (particulate matter). The elderly, people with chronic diseases and children will be affected more. Normally healthy people won’t be affected so much, but it will have a nuisance effect on people,” he said regarding the effects it might have on people.
How to protect yourself
For people to protect themselves, said Schoeman, they should try to stay indoors whenever possible. “If you have chronic diseases such as asthma, lung and heart disease, rather visit your doctor for medical advice. You can wear gas masks if you cannot escape or temporarily relocate to a friend or family,” he added.
* A quick web search revealed that “PM10” and “PM2.5” are readings often included in air quality reports from environmental authorities and companies. PM2.5 refers to atmospheric particulate matter (PM) that have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres, which is about 3% the diameter of a human hair, while PM10 is particulate matter 10 micrometres or less in diameter. PM2.5, also called “fine particulates”, is a more serious health concern than “PM10”, since smaller particles can travel more deeply into the lungs and cause more harmful effects. Particulate matter refers to fine particles in the air that are detrimental to your health.
Smoke filled Knysna’s skies for days on end after fires hit the Garden Route.