Heavy air pollution heightens fear of lung diseases in Rivers

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SAMPSON ITODE

A resident in Rivers State, Diepriye Joe, is disturbed by the persistent impure carbon particles fouling the air in the state. This is particularly because she feared that the polluted air could infect her with lung infection.

Joe, who resides in Buguma town in the Asari-Toru Local Government Area of the state, lamented that soot had worsened an already bad ecological situation in the area,

She said, “The soot is enormous here. We have been managing water pollution for a long time in this area. We no longer drink well water because of the petrol-like substance in it and now the air too is polluted. Where are we going to live with our children? I don’t know which part of the state that is safe now.

“I treat cough and catarrh every week. My children are always developing coughs even in the heat. A doctor told me to always close my door and window at night. How can that work when I don’t have an air-conditioner. That is why I am begging the state government to do something before soot kills us. We have been told that the effects on our health could give us lung diseases but we are helpless.’’

Another resident of the state, Afiesimama Walter, linked illegal bunkering to the cause of the soot.

He stated that the soot in the state would be a thing of the past if the government could make the fineries work at optimal capacity.

Walter said, “Government has not provided any alternative for the people. Where do they expect the people to buy fuel from? Do they expect them to travel miles through waterways to buy kerosene from the city? To be honest, it appears like the government does not have the will to stop illegal bunkering.’’

Also, a mother of five in Port Harcourt, the state capital, who only gave her name only as Chioma, said the soot particles that settled on her nostrils usually gave her itchy throat and nose. According to her, the soot also causes heat even in the early hours of the day when the weather is supposed to be cool.

She added that she had visited a nearby primary health centre on several occasions, where she was given antibiotics.

Chioma said, “I usually clean blackish stains from my nose with a tissue every morning and it is usually peppery. It also somehow dries up my throat and nose. The soot also causes heat because in the morning even if there is breeze, there will still be heat.

“My children often fall sick and I take them to the clinic, but I don’t know if it is the soot that is causing their regular sickness. I usually visit the health and like I said, the doctor usually prescribes antibiotics and cough syrup for me to ease the discomfort.’’

A grocery dealer in Port Harcourt, Usman Kabiru, who is from Sokoto State, said he suffers intermittent coughs which he claimed was caused by the soot. He added that he travelled to his village for three months and enjoyed better air quality.

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Kabiru stated, “The air is choking in Port Harcourt because of the soot. Cough is not allowing me to sleep well. I always notice black mucus in my nostrils. I don’t have money to go to hospital but I suspect that it’s the soot that is affecting me and many other people in the state.’’ The plights of some of the residents who spoke with our correspondent are the same with many other dwellers in the state.

The air pollution in the state in the form of a dark matter otherwise called soot started in December 2016. The situation has generated concerns among residents, government and stakeholders.

An example of such concerns was the #Stopthesoot campaign organised by the Extra Step Initiative in September 2016, accompanied by peaceful protests in Port Harcourt months after the appearance of the black matter in parts of the state. The exercise was convened by an environmental rights activist, Eugene Abels, to urge the state and federal governments to urgently tackle the menace.

The state government in 2017 inaugurated a technical committee to investigate and proffer recommendations to curb the environmental challenge.

Expectedly, in April 2019, the committee concluded its findings and revealed that about 22,077 patients in the state were, within the period in review, hospitalised and treated for dermatological and respiratory diseases caused by the prevailing soot across the state.

The committee which comprised environmental and health experts and headed by a former state Commissioner for Environment, Prof. Roseline Konya, in its report which had yet been made public but made available to Sunday PUNCH through a reliable source, indicated that the treated patients included men, women and children of different ages. It also employed a hospital-based review of records of patients received for soot-related conditions in health facilities across the state.

Besides, the committee through scientific methodologies identified artisanal refining of petroleum products in 14 out of the 23 local government areas of the state coupled with gas flaring as major causes of the soot. It thus recommended that illegal refining be converted to modular refineries that would not endanger the environment to tackle the menace.

Meanwhile, some experts have linked the soot to incomplete combustion of crude oil, releasing carbon monoxide, sulphur and other substances into the air, during distillation.

However, Abels said an independent investigation of the soot revealed that it contained carcinogenic substances capable of causing cancerous and respiratory diseases as well as infertility after inhalation.

The rights activist also filed a suit seeking to restrain the military from continuing the environmentally unfriendly practice of burning confiscated petroleum products, thereby contributing to the emissions of the soot in the environment.

He said, “When we started noticing the soot in 2016, I did some detailed study about it because initially we were thinking it was caused by gas flaring. People were complaining of gas flaring and how it caused acid rains depleting the environment. But now it has come into the house.

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“I did research about the soot and found over 600 researches on it. I needed to find out what exactly the soot which some call particulate matter is all about.

I discovered that it’s even more dangerous when it is microscopic and it can easily get into one’s trachea. I went further and discovered that it has carcinogen and is capable of causing loss of memory, infertility and cancer.

“The state is more interested in the percentage it regularly gets for gas flaring. For the government, it’s about generating revenue and nobody is putting their feet down to stop the air pollution.’’

Pushing the campaign further, the Extra Step Initiative in January 2018 wrote a letter of appeal to the former British Prime Minister, Theresa May, on the dangerous black soot.

In August 2019, the group instituted a fundamental human rights enforcement suit against the Federal Ministry of Environment, the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency and the Commander, Joint Military Task Force (Operation Delta Safe), urging the court to prevail on the government to stop the continuous pollution of black soot in the environment.

He said, “In the course of engaging relevant bodies to tackle the pollution, I realised that most of the concerns of our environment are federal in nature. That is why we are still in court with the Federal Government and we insist that since Nigeria is a signatory to the African Charter of the right to Clean Environment and Nigeria has domesticated the law. That is one of our prayers so that the agencies responsible could ensure that the citizenry enjoy their right to a clean environment.”

In another vein, a health expert based in Port Harcourt, Dr. Edward Ekpe, warned that the soot could trigger stroke and heart failure.

Ekpe stated, “It can lead to respiratory tract infections. Remember we inhale it (soot). So, the tube-like structures in the lungs will be affected and it is called bronchitis. Then, there’s asthma. You know asthma itself is a problem of the respiratory tract. Soot can worsen it and if it leads to respiratory tract infection, it can also lead to heart problems and cardiovascular diseases. There are ongoing studies linking the soot with problems of reproductive development.”

To ascertain the quality of air in Port Harcourt, a baseline air quality study was conducted between April 18 and 22, 2020 by Prof. Nenibarini Zabbey, Dr. Kabari Sam, Christopher Newsom and Peace Nyiaghan on behalf of the Environmental and Conservation Unit, Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development, Stakeholders Democratic Network and two other organisations.

The study revealed that residents of Port Harcourt were exposed to potential respiratory and cardiovascular health risks due to the poor air quality, noting that the reality was making residents more vulnerable to COVID-19.

The researchers disclosed that low-cost air quality monitors were deployed across residential, industrial, and commercial areas in the state capital for five days to provide air quality baselines in the different areas.

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They disclosed that the results further showed that Borikiri area had a 24-h mean, a high particulates with a diameter less than 2.5 (304 0 μg/m3), while Nkporlu had the highest particulates with a diameter less than 10 (575 μg/m3) when compared to the World Health Organisation 24-Hrs mean standards.

More so, a check on the air quality index in Port Harcourt between January 20 and 21, 2020, revealed that the air pollution stood at PM 2.5) (particulate matter with diameter not less than 2.5), indicating that the air was still dense.

Speaking with our correspondent, a lab scientist at the Rivers State University Teaching Hospital, who spoke on condition of anonymity, because he wasn’t authorised to comment on the matter said there was a surge in children with upper respiratory tract infection in the hospital. The lab scientist said the children were mostly treated with antibiotics, a pointer, he said, indicated that the air was polluted.

Speaking on the development, the state government said it was working to end pollution in the state.

The state Commissioner for Environment, Igbiks Tamuno, noted that the government was finalising plans of inviting investors that would build modular refineries across the state to engage the youth and also save the environment by implementing the recommendations of the state government’s technical committee on soot.

Tamuno further said that the government was holding talks with the relevant stakeholders and youths to enlighten them of its plans.

He added, “We have been doing consultative meetings with the community development chairmen, traditional rulers and the youth, including investors. There are some investors who have shown serious willingness and made presentations to us. The governor said our ministry should work with that of energy and we are doing that to make a presentation to the state executive council. We strongly believe that a modular refinery will come on stream this year.’’

According to him, the state has been dealing with the soot challenge since 2016, but the modular refinery project is being harnessed to tackle the matter.

Tamuno stated, “We are going to put all the artisanal refineries into a cooperative society. They will come out from the creeks and invest in the project because what is causing the soot is the incomplete combustion of crude released as carbon monoxide, sulphur and all into the air. We need more investors but we don’t want investors that would degrade our environment. The modular refinery is a fallout of the committee’s report. They have submitted the report and we are now flying with the recommendations.”

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