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Environment and Health

Current Projects


A list of current projects undertaken at the Environment and Health Research Unit (E&HRU):


Leveraging Environmental Air Pollution data for Epidemiological Studies (LEAP-Epi)

This project, entitled ‘Leveraging Environmental Air Pollution data for Epidemiological Studies’, is funded by the Royal Society of Engineering. In partnership with the University of Leicester, the University of the Witwatersrand and North-West University, we are testing and implementing low-cost sensors that measure air pollution in two South Africa sites, Soweto (Gauteng province) and Agincourt (Mpumalanga province). The project aims to understand how low-cost sensors fare compared to high grade instruments when collecting air quality data, as well as how they are received by communities and households when implemented in the dwellings and at schools.

Key investigators: Prof Caradee Wright ( and Dr Tracey Laban (

Climate-proofing taxi ranks

Funded by the National Research Foundation, this project aims to understand heat perceptions and heat-health risks among commuters and taxi industry members (i.e., drivers, marshals, owners) while in minibus taxi ranks in the City of Tshwane (Gauteng province). In collaboration with the City of Tshwane and the Tshwane Taxi Industry (TTI), we will gather information from commuters and the taxi industry that will inform interventions (e.g., big trees, benches) to roll out in taxi ranks to curb heat-health risks and improve thermal comfort while making use of taxi ranks.

Key investigator: Prof Caradee Wright (

Heavy metals and children’s respiratory symptoms and asthma in low socio-economic homes

Exposure to heavy metals such as arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), and lead (Pb) constitutes significant potential threats to human health and remains a global health problem. The health impacts associated with heavy metals remain a concern, especially among vulnerable groups, viz. children situated in low and middle-income countries (LMICs). The project aims to explore the impact of heavy metals on respiratory symptoms and asthma in children participating in the “Mother and Child in the Environment (MACE),” cohort study investigating the effects of ambient and indoor air pollution and the development of adverse respiratory outcomes in children of women living in highly industrialized communities of south Durban and less industrialized communities of north Durban. The findings of this study will have the potential to influence spatial planning policy and ultimately reduce potential exposure to multiple environmental pollutants related to the increase in the prevalence of respiratory symptoms and the burden of asthma.

Key investigator: Dr Busisiwe Shezi (

Residential built environment and psychological well-being among caregivers and adolescents living in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

The built environment of residential areas can have a significant impact on psychological well-being. For example, access to greenspaces may enhance mental health, while poor housing quality may negatively impact mental health. This study forms part of the caregiver wellbeing PLUS (CWeL+) study evaluating a cash transfer plus gender transformative economic livelihoods interventions for improving psychological wellbeing and gender equality among woman caregivers of the children and adolescents living with HIV from Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. As part of the CWeL+ study methodology, the present study intends to i) determine the perceptions and experiences of caregivers and adolescents in relation to their home environment and psychological wellbeing, and ii) assess housing characteristics, perceived air quality and residential greenness, and their impact on psychological wellbeing. This study will provide information on ways in which the residential built environment positively or negatively impacts the psychological well-being of adolescents living with HIV and caregivers taking care of these adolescents.

Key investigator: Dr Busisiwe Shezi (


Uranium concentrations in hair from communities living in close proximity to major mine tailings facilities in Johannesburg

Mining has been a fundamental pillar of the South African economy for well over a century. For most of this period however, health has not been a key consideration in the planning and management of mining operations and human settlements. Extensive mining of gold in Johannesburg has left major tailings facilities and other mine waste deposits on the landscape. These tailings dams and mine dumps contain potentially toxic metals such as uranium. People who reside in close proximity may be exposed to elevated concentrations of uranium. Children are often more vulnerable to toxic pollutants than adults because of their developing nervous systems, greater gastrointestinal absorption, elevated dietary intake of contaminants and more contact with contaminated surfaces due to their play and hand-to-mouth activities. This study aims to characterize uranium concentrations by analyzing biological and environmental samples in children living in homes located at various distances downwind of a cluster of large mine tailings facilities in Johannesburg, compared with communities not living in close proximity to gold mine tailings facilities in Durban. The findings of this study will provide a better understanding of relevant uranium exposure pathways among children, and their respective significance, thereby encourage mandatory buffer zones to improve the health of the affected residents.

Key investigator: Dr Busisiwe Shezi (

Urban green spaces as a potential climate change adaptation strategy for climate-sensitive health outcomes. A case study in Kampala, Uganda

Climate change is associated with an increased risk of occurrence of climate-sensitive health outcomes such as hypertension, anxiety and depressive disorders in urban areas. Current evidence suggests that urban green spaces may have a protective effect against such health outcomes. However, almost all existing evidence originates from high-income countries. This study aims to fill this knowledge gap by assessing the association between residential surrounding greenness and hypertension, anxiety and depressive disorders among urban residents of Kampala, Uganda. This study will inform future research on the impact of residential greenness on the aforementioned health outcomes in other low-and-middle income countries like South Africa. The information generated from this study will be essential to stakeholders such as urban planners and public health authorities to guide action. 

For more information, contact Dr Busisiwe Shezi (

Mining Intervention study

Mine dumps are a major generator of wind-blown dust containing toxic metals such as lead. Lead has been associated with adverse health effects, especially neurocognitive and behavioural effects in children. Communities living close to gold mine dumps are at risk of elevated exposure to lead. A before and after intervention study is conducted in Soweto, Snake Park, a community situated at the base of the Durban Roodepoort Deep (DRD) Mine (DRD). The study aims to evaluate the impact of an educational and domestic hygiene intervention on exposure to indoor dust lead levels. The study will determine whether the interventions led to a reduction in indoor dust lead levels, and if shown to be effective, will inform the development of an awareness campaign to reduce lead exposure in communities located near gold mine dumps. The study holds the potential for a cost-effective measure to reduce exposure to mining-associated toxic substances, for hundreds of thousands of households living in the shadow of mining operations and other sites of elevated exposure to toxic substances from industrial sources.

Key investigator: Dr Vusi Nkosi (

Cottage industries and potential metal exposure

Globally, billions of individuals earn their livelihoods in the informal economy. As a sub-group of the informal sector, cottage industries offer small-scale services that typically operate from households. As with most informal work, cottage industries are not regulated and thereby are often characterized by lack of legal recognition, social protection and labour rights. Cottage industries can also contribute to environmental pollution as they frequently operate in unsafe and unregulated conditions. This can lead to the release of toxic substances (such as metals) into the surrounding environment, which can contaminate soil, water and air. The aim of this study was to describe home-based occupationally related sources of toxic metals within urban communities and compare blood lead (Pb) levels in households exposed to home-based and informal work in Johannesburg, South Africa. This study is undertaken in collaboration with the University of São Paulo (Brazil) and is funded through the SA National Research Foundation (NRF) and the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) of Brazil Joint Science and Technology Research Collaboration.

Key investigator: Dr Renée Street (

The SAMRC Wastewater Surveillance and Research Programme monitors the non-infectious SARS-CoV-2 RNA, the fragments of the virus that causes COVID-19, in wastewater. The non-infectious SARS-CoV-2 RNA can be shed in feces of individuals that are symptomatic or asymptomatic. By testing wastewater weekly, we can measure the SARS-CoV-2 RNA signal and see whether it is increasing or decreasing. This has been used as an early indicator of COVID-19 case trends within a community.

Key investigator: Dr Renée Street (

The SAMRC is one of several high-level partners collaborating with the University of Cape Town (UCT) on this Wellcome Trust funded project. HABVIA aims to address evidence gaps on the human health and wider social outcomes of heat adaptation in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). The study, which is spread across four heat-vulnerable sites in Ghana and South Africa, will (i) gather high-quality cohort data on physiological and mental health, alongside climate, environmental and socio-economic information; (ii) implement heat adaptations have been co-produced with local communities and (iii) develop and test heat warning systems to support these adaptations.

For more information, contact Dr Thandi Kapwata (; supported by E&HRU study team (Dr Tracey Laban, Dr Nomfundo Mahlangeni and Dineo Hlagala)

The South African Medical Research Council’s (SAMRC) Environment and Health Research Unit (E&HRU) is partnering with national and international counterparts on the African and European continents to investigate the effects of poverty on psychological conditions – particularly depression.

Leading the NEET study is the University of Pretoria (UP). Other collaborators include: the University of Ibadan (Nigeria), the University of Leicester (UK), University of Dalhousie (Canada), as well as the University of Nottingham (UK). From a research standpoint, NEET is the first study of its kind examining how the lack of resources can contribute to young people experiencing psychological challenges such as depression – compounded by various barriers inhibiting overall success in life – using a unique methodological approach. The NEET Study is funded by the Wellcome Discovery Grant and aims to provide mental health practitioners with the necessary tools to effectively address a very pressing issue among youth populations globally.

For more information, contact Prof Caradee Wright (

The PLANET4HEALTH project is a funded from the Horizon EU research and innovation programme (G.A. No 101136652) providing new knowledge and tools on environment degradation and its impact on human, animal and ecosystem health. This project sees the collaboration of 17 partners (from 11 European countries and South Africa) and funding of approximately 6 million euros. It is led by Stefano Campostrini (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice – Italy) and Suzana Blesic (Institute for Medical Research, Belgrade – Serbia).

The South African Medical Research Council’s (SAMRC) Environment and Health Research Unit (E&HRU) will lead a case study on air pollution and health in South Africa, drawing together multiple datasets to inform technological innovations, such as application and policy solutions.

For more information, contact Prof Caradee Wright (