The quality of air we breathe

The quality of air we breathe

ROMA – THE quality of air within the Roma Valley may not be as good as you think.
This is according to the quiet and shy Malefatsane Ramphalile, who, like most of his fellow scientists, is the definition of an inquisitive soul.
A student at the National University of Lesotho (NUL), he has just finished a study in which he used extremely sensitive scientific equipment to assess air quality within one location at the NUL.
Ramphalile was supervised by two chemistry gurus, Dr Tebello Mahamo and Professor Heilmichael Alemu.

In this study, the quiet, hardworking fellow could measure particles as small as 2.5 microns (when they are this small, we call them particulates).
That is approximately 30 times smaller than your single hair!
And that is where the problem is.
Such small particles can create havoc in your delicate body.
They are primary suspects in such diseases as asthma and pneumonia.
The study was sponsored by the government’s Department of Environment which has been very keen to work with the NUL recently.
“After months of study, there are indications that the air we breathe in Roma, and at the university in particular, may not be as good as we previously thought,” Ramphalile said.

The results were a bit surprising because you expect Lesotho to be a haven for clean air since we don’t have much of an industry around.
But, alas, some unexpected factors could be responsible.
You see, the inquisitive scientist wanted to do his work in the Thetsane Industrial Area in Maseru.
Since that place is bustling with factory activity, it is a soft target for anyone who wants to understand the condition of air in Lesotho’s “hot spots”.
He could hardly find a suitable position over which to place his delicate and extremely expensive scientific equipment which was given to NUL by the Department of Environment.

Anyway, he had to move on, so he came closer home.
“I got the permission to put the equipment above the main Thomas Mofolo library at the NUL.”
It was an ideal place.
Even the most curious amongst us would not notice an inch of such good equipment on the roofs.
It was safe.

“I would then comfortably do a 24-hour collection of particles there for months,” he said.
How did he do it?
He had two filters.
A filter is more or less like a sieve.

Just as you use a sieve to trap materials of a certain size, like when you trap large flour particles, a filter is able to trap particles of a certain size.
The first filter trapped particles the size of 2.5 micrometres or less!
That is an awfully small size.
The filter was called greased-CTD filter.
Never mind what that is all about.
The second filter could trap larger particles, 10 micrometres in size.
It is called spi-pore filter.
Again, never mind what on earth that means.

He would then use an extremely sensitive weighing scale to measure the weight of these particles.
How sensitive is this scale?
Well it is not your normal scale. Not at all!
It is able to determine the weight of something one microgram in mass!
Just how small is a microgram?

Let’s say you weigh 70 kg (provided you are an average adult).
A particle weighing one microgram weighs 70 000 000 000 less than you (that is 70 billion times less).
Yet this machine is able to measure the weight of that particle. In fact, it can even go lower!

No wonder the system could not find a spot in Ha-Thetsane.
So what did he find?
For the greased-CTD filter (2.5 microns), the machine trapped 85.2182 micrograms of particulates per cubic meters of air.
“That was high,” since the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends for a healthy dose of 25 micrograms per cubic metres of air,” he said.
For the spi-pore filter, the machine trapped 54.0422 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

That is not too bad although it is still higher than the WHO recommendations limits with a healthy dose of 50 micrograms per cubic metres.
What could be behind higher rates of particulates in the air?
“Literature survey shows that air around agricultural fields may be just as exposed to particulates as that found around industrial areas,” he said.
That is because agriculture can expose soil particles, making it easy for them to be taken by wind.

The NUL is situated around agriculture fields.
The presence of a major road by the campus and the fact that there is a lot of cooking near the NUL main gate does not help either.
“It is important to view these as preliminary results,” Ramphalile said.
“This is because we are yet to determine the nature of the particulates themselves. Do they originate mainly from plants and animals or are they minerals in nature or a combination?”

Could the amounts of particulates in the air perhaps also vary in space and time?
If so, by how much?
Those are the questions for another inquisitive soul to answer.
Fortunately, the Roma Valley is blessed with a sizable bunch of those.

Own Correspondent


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