Again, soot spike in Rivers raises fresh health concerns
• As 23,000 persons suffer respiratory related ailment in five years
Following recent increase in activities of illegal refiners and bunkerers, there is fear in Rivers State that this may cause a surge of deadly black soot in the atmosphere. A reviewed report of a technical team set up by the Rivers State government and headed by the state’s former Commissioner for Environment, Prof. Roseline Konya, revealed that about 22,077 persons have suffered from respiratory related ailments in the last five years.
The team, made up 20 experts from various inter-disciplinary and relevant fields, including a consultant physician and dermatologist at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital, Dr. Dasetima Altraide, had conducted investigative studies into the airborne particulate (soot) in Port Harcourt and the report stated that illegal bunkering and gas flaring are two major sources of soot in the state.
The report noted that since the prevalence of pollution and the inhalation of carcinogens due to black soot prevalence have surged among residents.
In April 2019, the scientific report by the technical study team on soot following a hospital base review of records of 22,077 persons, who received care for soot related conditions at Health facilities in Rivers State, found in respect to adverse respiratory, skin and reproductive conditions related to black soot. The report noted that the persons who received the health care include women, men and children.
The report found, based on the risk of analysed pollutant samples of the black soot, that heavy metals concentrate found in the soot and measured in the study showed that thousands of people in the state are expected to suffer cancerous and non-cancerous diseases from the soot in the atmosphere.
Expectedly, the investigative report by the expert committee, which The Guardian assessed through a reliable source, should have been on public domain to enable citizens, civil society organisations and the media have easy access to it, but the reverse is the case, and this, in a way, is shrinking the public space on soot prevalence.
MEANWHILE, the predictions by many health professionals are that if nothing is done urgently to stop the soot, many residents might experience chronic respiratory diseases, heart problems and increase in mortality rate. This is becoming real as some persons, who have found it very difficult breathing while in Port Harcourt, have relocated to other places.
In a suit filed by the initiator of ‘StopTheSoot’ campaign, Eugene Abels, at the Federal High Court Port Harcourt on fundamental rights to life and satisfactory favourable environment, against the Federal Government and other relevant federal agencies, he noted that many are leaving Port Harcourt because of the health challenge in the city.
Some of the persons listed in the suit include, Mr. Ebitan Egbuson, and Miss Deborah Batubo, daughter to Abel’s friend.
Apparently, soot is not discriminatory, it’s not like the sun or rain that inclines on those who are unable to shield themselves, it filters in through lock doors, closed surfaces into the rooms, cars, offices that, there is no safe place in the state.
The Guardian gathered that top politicians in the state have started using M95, a nose mask that filters the air. This mask, it was gathered, is very expensive and has a lifespan of 30 days. It is, however, not ascertained whether the mask is won to curb the spread of COVID-19 virus or to filter the polluted air.
The deadly pollution started in 2016 when the skyline in several parts of the city was covered with dark particulate matters. One of the major recommendations of the report was to end the sources of soot through setting up of modular refineries. However, lack of political will to implement the report and also failure by the Federal Government to swiftly initiate moves to tackle the air plague, or put in place, regulations that will reduce it, has made the challenge of soot to linger .
The report revealed following soot sources: refineries, illegal refiners, setting ablaze of illegally refined petroleum products by the military, tyre burning, gas flaring, meat roasting with used tyres, asphalt plants, refuse burning, fertiliser companies and others.
During rainy seasons however, the black soot reduces, as residents and other relevant authorities within the period worry less to face other issues like the Coronavirus.
Further investigations by The Guardian at the state Ministry of Environment revealed that artisanal refining is occurring in 14 of the 23 council areas of the state. The activities of the refiners is said to be causing incomplete combustion of crude which now releases carbon monoxide, sulphur into the air.
The committee suggested integrating the artisanal refiners into cooperatives for the formal refining of petroleum products, which according to the report, is one of the most effective ways to curb air plague.
Though this requires some processes but the politics of 2019 general elections delayed its execution as all attention was geared towards winning the general elections, which was subsequently followed by litigations.
Shortly after that, the Coronavirus pandemic broke out with the associated lockdowns.
Investigations by The Guardian showed a drastic reduction of the soot particles during the restrictions because industrial activities both legal and illegal were shutdown.
After the lockdown, however, the soot particles , spiked following rise in the activities of oil bunkerers. For instance, a visit to Okrika, Borokiri, Marine base, Nembe waterfronts. Other showed youths, men and women carrying jerry cans, nylon bags filled with adulterated kerosene trooping into the city to sell the products.
In fact, at Niger Street in old Port Harcourt Township, trucks were steadily parked with the aid of some security operatives waiting to be loaded with adulterated products, and sadly, no actions have been taken to stop the mess.
Expectedly, by November 2020, the soot particles became very perceptible across the state because of the surge in illegal refining in several parts of Rivers.
Some of the artisanal refiners, who craved anonymity, told The Guardian that people are hungry and needed money to meet their needs especially, during the festive period. They disclosed that the increase in illegal activities may not be unconnected with return of soot. Some even promised to desist from the act if government could empower them, while some insisted that they would continue because, it is a quick source of income.
Air Visual ranking of Port Harcourt
ON December 23, 2020, Air Visual ranked Port Harcourt very unhealthy for sensitive groups with an air index of 207.817, hence urging the sensitive groups to wear mask outdoors.
Findings showed that this was higher than the April 2018 ranking, when Port Harcourt was rated the worst polluted city in the world with an air index of 188, followed by Beijing, China, which ranked 182, and Delhi, India at 181.
Also, an air quality assessment conducted by the Extractive Industries and Society, from April 18 to April 22, 2020 indicated that Borokiri area had 24 h mean, being the highest PM2.5 (304 ug/m3) while Nkporlu had the highest PM10 (575 ug/m3) and when compared with World Health Organisation’s (WHO) 24 hrs mean standards, the results across the assessed locations indicated that citizens within Port Harcourt are exposed to potential respiratory and cardiovascular health risks due to poor quality.
According to the study on Air quality baseline in Port Harcourt carried out on April 2020 by Prof. Nenibarini Zabbey, a Professor of Hydro-biology (Benthnic and Restoration Ecology), of the Environment and Conservation Unit, Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD), D-Line Port Harcourt, Christopher Newsom, Advisor to Stakeholder Democracy Network (SDN), among two others, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, were identified as underlying illnesses that enhance the lethal effects of vulnerability to COVID-19 .
Additionally, close monitoring showed that the rains can reduce the air index level, for instance, the state witnessed rain showers on Sunday, January 3, 2021, and checks on the Air Index on Tuesday and Wednesday, January 5 and 6, 2021 showed that the air index has reduced to 81, meaning that rainfall sometimes washes off the pollution but an environmental expert, Professor of Applied Metrology and Environmental Management at the Rivers State University, Prof. Acura Gobo, said the rain only clears the atmosphere but the pollution is still intact. The expert therefore, reiterated the need for the State and Federal Government to work in synergy to renew laws and steps aimed at tackling the soot.
Also, a visit to some areas in Eleme, Oyigbo, Obio/Akpor, Ikwere, Port Harcourt, Ogoni, Ogba Egbema/Ndoni council in the state showed a rise in the soot prevalence than it was in the last three years.
The sky is often covered with thick dark clouds and the soot particles are seen dropping on the cars, clothes, houses, markets. Some traders who sell clothes now use nylon to seal their wares to avoid black stains.
A resident in Oyigbo, Ahmed Suleman, said, “the soot is getting worse, its everywhere here, if you spray clothes it affects it, people don’t stay outside to eat anymore because the soot particles drop on our foods, when rain falls, the colour is dark, you cannot use it to do anything, not even to wash clothes because it will stain it, we are worried, the sicknesses are threatening, my children fall ill often, I have lived in Port Harcourt for over 30 years, the situation was not like this in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s, so government should do something urgently.”
Health challenge threatens residents
UNDOUBTEDLY, as health experts predicted, one of the common health challenges facing some residents is respiratory problem. Visits by The Guardian to the Model Primary Healthcare Centre located at Okija Street, Mile One Diobu, Port Harcourt, the Health Care Centre at Rumodumanya and Rumosi, the Rivers State Teaching Hospital, the Bodo General Hospital and University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital showed that from the file of patients, large number of them suffer from respiratory related problems.
The scientific report by the expert committee on soot indicated that 22,077 received care for soot related conditions at some of the above mentioned health facilities.
Some children were seen on hospital bed having difficulties in breathing. Also, cough, catarrh, sore throat, asthma, heart disease, appear to be common among them as well.
Dr. Dasetima Altraide, who is a member of the expert committee, told The Guardian that the black soot affects almost all the organs in the body, especially the respiratory organs, because people breath in soot daily.
Altraide said, “the best solution is to stop all the sources of soot, because you cannot stop people from breathing, so, prevention from the source is best because soot is associated with heart problems, skin diseases, cough, asthma, catarrh, in fact, it affects all the respiratory organs, it does not spare anyone because all of us breathe the same air, so, there is urgent need to stop the menace from the source, masks cannot stop it from filtering in, the only mask that can help is M95.”
IRKED by the surging menace of soot, which started over four years ago, residents of Port Harcourt had taken certain actions to draw government’s attention — they had mobilized themselves, staged peaceful protest and launched a social media platform to continually raise the alarm. Radio and television stations were also used to inspire actions by government andrelevant stakeholders.
In a determined spirit of bringing the menace to an end, a civil society group, the Extra Step Initiative (ESI) in August 2019, sued the Federal Government and the Joint Military Task Force (Operation Delta Safe) for continuous pollution of environment in the state.
The ESI Operations Head, who also launched the ‘StopTheSoot’ Campaign, Eugene Abels, said, “we didn’t want it to stop at public outcry, we carried out further studies and compiled a petition of about 300 pages and sent it to the United Nations and copied the World Health Organisation, United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP and all the organs concerned and leaders of the world. The British Prime Minister, Theresa May acknowledged receipt of the report and informed us they will look into it but till date, despite several reminders, WHO and UN has not acknowledge the petition.
“I also realised that there was a right to clean the environment contained in the African Charter and we noticed that Nigeria has also domesticated it and we approached the Court, I and ESI and they told us that a panel has been set up that we should hold on.”
Abels regretted that over five million people living in the state have been inhaling some particles of soot for over four years and yet WHO has been silent over that, an act he described as very disturbing and disheartening.
He said, “we are still waiting for them in court, when we succeed in court, we will then compel actions to implement the court ruling. It’s sad that people are dying from the complications of soot already, when the COVID 19 broke out, Bonny and Onne axis of the State had the highest hit because their immune system has already been abused by the soot hence; the resistance to the pandemic was low.”
Another concerned citizen of the State who has been consistent in her campaign against soot is Mrs. Ilanye Chapp- Jumbo.
Jumbo is worried that the menace has remained unabated because of the alleged involvement of some security personnel and top personalities in the illegal deal of petroleum products.
According to her, “the security men are part of the whole process, around Creek Road in Port Harcourt township, near the school for the physically challenged persons is a depot, Niger Street around the area is another depot for trans-loading illegal petroleum products into trucks, but the security agents will see all these things and keep mute because, you will see when the agitations are high, security will come in and after a while, the whole action dies”
She expressed concern on the health implications of the menace to the lives of residents.
According to Jumbo, “my fears as a mother on this soot is enormous, just clean your nose, you will see what will come out. I was in a health seminar recently and an expert noted that anyone who lives in Rivers State is endangered specie. He said, if a lifespan of someone who lives in the North is 80 years and the same person relocates to Rivers State, that person might not live half of that age again because of the health hazards here.
“The health expert added that the effect doesn’t just come immediately, he said in 10 years time, people who live in Rivers State will begin to come down with respiratory challenges, currently, children are beginning to come down with breathing challenges, what smoking does to the lungs is exactly what soot does to the body and this is scary”. She decried.
Federal, state government weigh in
THOUGH there has been calls from several quarters for an environmental audit in the Niger Delta region, particularly in Rivers State, following the enormous oil business going on in the state, nothing has happened. It is expected that after 60 years of oil exploration, there is a need to know the environment and health status but that has not been done.
When soot was discovered, the state government swung into action by setting up an expert committee to investigate the composition and recommend solutions. The state shutdown some companies, which were noted to be sources of soot, it further commenced the seizure of tyres, as well as shutdown of power plants in Ikwere and Obio/Akpor councils for causing air pollution. Some of the companies, The Guardian gathered have relocated while others remain shut.
The government actions slowed down during the 2019 elections but findings shows that the government is ready to do more.
In a chat with the Commissioner for Environment, Dr. Igbiks Tamuno, it was discovered that consultative meetings with relevant stakeholders have been carried out and talks are currently on with investors to ensure modular refineries come on stream across the councils of the state this year.
The commissioner said, “we have been doing consultative meetings with the community development chairmen, traditional rulers, the boys and all that, including the investors, there are couple of investors that have shown serious willingness, they have 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 and we are trusting that in 2021, a modular refinery will come on stream.
“We have been dealing with the soot challenge since 2016 but the modular refinery is the main thing to curb it, we are going to put all the artisanal refiners into cooperative society, they will come out from the creeks, invest in the project, what is causing the soot is the incomplete combustion of crude that now releases carbon monoxide, sulphur and all that in the air.
“So, when we now have modular refineries that completely combust crude, you will not see soot again, we are using the modular refinery project to resolve the issues of jobs, violence, security and environmental degradation, its just one shot that addresses many things.”
The commissioner said that every company that was found to be involved in illegal mining of crude oil was shut down.
“We are looking for investors but we are not looking for investors that will degrade our environments, the modular refinery is a fall out of the committee’s report, they have submitted the report and we are now flying with their recommendations,” he explained.
The Minister of Environment, Dr. Mohammad Abubakar, blamed the soot to the activities of artisanal refiners but creating modular refineries soon to end it.
He told The Guardian, “naturally, we all know that the soot is coming from artisanal refining, it has been difficult to put a stop to their activities because the refiners move from place to place, we discover one today, go and stop it, they move to another location.
“This is where soot is coming from, and of course, it is very terrible for anyone to breathe, so, we are looking at different options, not just stopping it but maybe reaching out to these artisanal refiners and see how we can create a different kind of livelihood that can make them to join to boost the economy and environment instead of damaging it. We are looking at a solution of creating the modular refinery, we are looking at different options, I cannot tell you one particular thing that can stop this but we are looking at it critically.”
He said, last year was very eventful due to the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, but reassured that the Federal Government has a lot of ambition in in 2021 to continue pushing out results.
On the health challenges that residents are currently facing, the Minister said, “we are looking at upgrading the primary health care centres in Ogoni land to a more sophisticated hospital in each of the four councils in Ogoni.
It is, however, hoped that governments at all levels would make real their promises to put an end to the air plague that is ravaging the health of the people and as well, constitute a grave threat.