Habitable Air

Industrial Toxicity and Air Pollution in South Durban: Exploring the Link with Asthma through the Habitable Air Project

Asthma is an incredibly complex disease that is often overlooked and understudied, particularly in South Africa and generally in the Global South. In South Africa, the story of asthma is deeply entwined with industrial toxicity and air pollution that increase the burden of having this disease. As an ethnographic study, it is crucial to understand the ways in which industrial toxins and air pollution have come to shape the lives of those living with asthma in South Durban – a place well known and researched for its elevated levels of air pollution.

In the context of South Durban, South Africa, the Habitable Air Project takes on a special urgency. Here, industrial toxins and air pollution have become a major source of health risk for the population and particularly for those living with asthma. Asthma is one of the most common diseases in urban areas, yet it is often taken for granted or overlooked in South Africa and in other parts of the world. In South Durban, the prevalence of asthma is high compared to the rest of the country, with one study of an elementary school estimating around 50 per cent prevalence of asthma symptoms among the pupils (Kistnasamy et al. 2008).

The industrial and commercial activity that is common in South Durban has led to the production of various pollutants such as sulphur and nitrogen dioxide, which are released into the environment. These substances are also known to contribute to the development of asthma (e.g., Naidoo 2019) as well as to worsen the existing symptoms of those who already have the disease. The Habitable Air Project aims to deepen our understanding of how industrial toxins and air pollution have come to shape the lives of those living with asthma in South Durban.

The air quality in South Durban has been affected by the industrial and commercial activity taking place in the area. This has a direct impact on the health of those living in the area, particularly those who suffer from asthma. The effects of the elevated levels of air pollution in South Durban on those living with asthma has been well documented (Kistnasamy et al. 2008; Naidoo et al. 2013; Nriagu et al. 1999).  It is known to worsen existing symptoms and to increase the risk of developing asthma in people with no prior diagnosis.

“… [in] the South Durban Basin… the PM2.5 annual mean concentration can reach 29 μg/m3 (almost three times as high as the World Health Organisation (WHO) threshold)”

(C40 2022: 2).

Industrial toxins and air pollution have had a significant impact on the lives of asthmatic people in South Durban. This is why it is so important to understand the ways in which this has come to shape their lives and the ways in which they cope with the disease. Through a combination of ethnographic research, interviews, and analysis of existing data, the Habitable Air Project will explore the ways in which asthma is embedded in the local environment of South Durban and how it is understood and supported by both local and global citizens. By understanding the impact of industrial toxins and air pollution on asthma, the Habitable Air Project seeks to produce knowledge that can be helpful in improving the health of those living with asthma in South Durban.


Kistnasamy, E. J. et al. (2008). The relationship between asthma and ambient air pollutants among primary school students in Durban, South Africa. International Journal of Environment and Health, 2(3-4), 365-385.

Naidoo, R. N. et al. (2013). Ambient pollution and respiratory outcomes among schoolchildren in Durban, South Africa. South African Journal of Child Health, 7(4), 127-134.

Naidoo, R. N. (2019). NO2 increases the risk for childhood asthma: a global concern. The Lancet. Planetary Health, 3(4), 155–156.

Nriagu, J. et al. (1999). Prevalence of Asthma and Respiratory Symptoms in South-Central Durban, South Africa. European Journal of Epidemiology, 15(8), 747-755.

C40 report: https://www.c40.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Durban-%E2%80%93-Regulating-Industrial-Emissions.pdf.