Eskom is responsible for just over half the deaths related to outdoor air pollution in an area of the Highveld where many of the utility’s coal-fired power stations are concentrated, according to a study released on Wednesday.

The area in Mpumalanga has been recognised as an air pollution hot spot by the Department of Environmental Affairs and has been declared a “high priority area”.

The study, commissioned by environment justice group groundWork, found that 51 percent of deaths from respiratory illness and 54 percent of cardiovascular disease, which are related to outdoor air pollution, could be attributed to Eskom.

However, Eskom disputes the figures and said on Wednesday they were not supported by previous studies.

The groundWork study comes as Eskom has applied to Environmental Affairs to postpone complying with updated air emission control standards. Eskom said it would cost R200 billion to install equipment to clean emissions to meet the standards.

Bobby Peek, director of groundWork, said the study was an analysis of existing literature on the issue, including some of Eskom’s own studies.

“Since 2002 Eskom’s sulphur emissions have gone up 22 percent, nitrogen oxide 44 percent and particulate matter (ash) by 74 percent. This is because they have recommissioned some old power stations and because they have been running them at maximum capacity.

“The cost to Eskom to put in the equipment is high, but the cost to the state of having to deal with ill health from pollution will also be high.”

Last month Eskom released two research reports to the Centre for Environmental Rights, compiled in 2006, which revealed that when there were only eight power stations in Mpumalanga “current Eskom power stations were cumulatively calculated to be responsible for 17 non-accidental mortalities per year and 661 respiratory hospital submissions”.

Robyn Hugo, an attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights, said yesterday there were now 12 power stations in the area – with other polluting industries like Sasol.

“Eskom’s very own health risk assessment, which is eight years old, said they were responsible for 17 deaths a year and 661 hospitalisations.

“It is clear that they should do an updated health risk assessment as part of the application to postpone complying with the emission standards.

“A Greenpeace study shows that the health costs in that region relating to air pollution are R230bn – which is more than the R200bn cost of installing equipment.”

Eugene Cairncross, a retired chemical engineer who worked on air pollution modelling, said Eskom’s air pollution was “unconscionable”.

“They have had more than enough time to get their act together and put in emission reduction equipment.”

Thomas Mnguni, a community activist in Middelburg, said the groundWork report had helped local people understand the cause of the illnesses. “It made people realise that some things they consider ordinary, like asthma or sinus or even lung cancer, are not.”

Eskom said yesterday it had not seen the report, so it was difficult to comment properly.

It said the claims were based on incorrect assumptions and had not taken into account measures that Eskom was to take to lessen emissions.

This programme would cost R72bn and would include installing filters at power stations.

It would begin next year and be completed in 2026.

This would reduce ash by 67 percent, nitrogen oxides by 25 percent and sulphur dioxide by 30 percent.