Action in Southern Africa
Refineries, your health and the environment
What is an oil refinery?
refineries convert crude oil, coal, or natural gases into fuel (including
petrol, diesel, paraffin, kerosene).
are various processes involved which include heating and chemical reactions.
SA there are five large refineries – Caltex (in Cape Town), Engen (in Durban),
NATREF in Sasolburg, and the Shell and BP combined SAPREF refinery (also in
refineries pollute our air, water, and land.
refineries cause smog and air pollution. South African refineries currently
pollute at unacceptable, unhealthy levels.
refineries emit about 100 chemicals everyday. These include metals like lead
which makes it hard for children to learn. They also include very small dust
particles called PM10, that get deep into our lungs and harms our ability to
breathe. Finally, refineries emit many gases like sulphur dioxide (SO2),
nitrogen oxide (NO2), carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane,
dioxins, hydrogen fluoride, chlorine, benzene and others.
of the gases emitted by refineries are harmful to humans, and can cause
permanent damage and even death. They
can cause respiratory problems (such as asthma, coughing, chest pain, choking,
bronchitis), skin irritations, nausea, eye problems, headaches, birth defects,
leukemia, and cancers. Young
children and the elderly are the worst affected.
study done in Durban showed that school children at a school situated next to a
refinery suffered between 30% - 40% more respiratory problems than children
living more than 10 km away.
are many ways for a refinery to reduce the amount of pollution it causes.
However, this usually requires the refinery to install some equipment. However,
refinery companies do not want to spend money on reducing pollution unless they
are forced to do so.
oil and coal both contain relatively high quantities of sulphur.
(Natural gases contain much less sulphur and therefore are safer.)
When crude oil or coal is heated at the refinery to produce fuel, the
sulphur is converted into a gas called sulphur dioxide.
This is a colourless gas with a very strong smell, like rotten eggs.
to very high concentrations of SO2 (for example, when there are
accidental leaks at a refinery) can result in painful irritation of the eyes,
nose, mouth and throat, difficulty in breathing, nausea, vomiting, headaches and
of the health effects from daily exposure to outdoor levels of SO2 are
tight chests, worsening of asthma and lung disease, and narrowing of air
passages in the throat and chest. People
with asthma are more sensitive to SO2.
Exposure to SO2
can provoke asthma attacks.
mixes easily in water, including moisture in the air to form an acid. Acid rain
and early morning dew causes much damage to metals, stones, and the environment.
of coal in domestic coal stoves also causes SO2.
is a safe level of SO2 exposure?
amount of SO2 that SA refineries are allowed to emit is well above
what is considered to be a healthy level by the World Health Organisation. SA refineries are allowed to emit up to 82, 000 kg per day.
In contrast oil refineries in some countries in Europe produce as little as 2
000 kg a day.
are fugitive emissions?
emissions are the air pollution which escapes through leaks in the equipment.
Very often the amount of pollution coming from fugitive emissions is
higher than the amount coming out of the stacks. In SA, refineries are not
required to monitor fugitive emissions.
clean are SA fuels?
refineries often use low quality crude oil that has high levels of sulphur. When
this is refined it produces higher levels of SO2 pollution.
accidents at refineries
fires, explosions, and chemical and gas leaks are common at refineries.
Such accidents cause higher than usual amounts of pollution, which may
result in more acute exposure to pollutants and greater health impacts.
and regulations governing refineries
Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Act, No 45 of 1965, is the main law governing
air pollution. The Act is very
outdated and needs to be revised to be in line with international standards.
terms of this Act, no one may operate a refinery without having a registration
certificate (or permit) from DEAT. The permit sets a limit to the amount of
pollution that the refinery is allowed to emit.
If the refinery emits more than the permit allows it to, then it is
breaking the law and can be punished.
SA refineries do not have to actually measure their air emissions but may simply
estimate or calculate the amount they are emitting through their stacks.
These estimates do not include fugitive emissions.
Remember that very often pollution from fugitive emissions can by higher
than the emissions coming out of the stacks.
can you do as a community to work with industry and government to make refinery
operations safe and clean?
of the actions you could take include:
The information pamphlet has been developed from groundWork's experiences working with refinery communities in South Africa, in particular with the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, the Table View Residents' Association, and the Sasolburg community.
more information contact: