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Nigeria in environmental roll back as protesters burn scrap tyres

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Open burning of tyres impacts on public health

Nigeria gains in environmental protection and enforcement, is being weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in major cities, especially Lagos and Ogun States as residents throng the streets to burn scrap tyres in protest over the activities of miscreants.

The miscreants have for several days held residents hostage and disposing them of their valuables. Despite the promise of the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu to tame the insecurity situation, most people live in fear; kept vigil, resort to self-help and burning tyres on the streets.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency study “Air Emissions from Scrap Tyre Combustion,” shows that emissions from the burning of tyres are a serious threat to human health.

Specifically, emissions from burning tyres are highly mutagenic (more mutagenic than emissions from the burning of all other bulk materials that researchers have tested. Emissions from burning tyres contains significant amounts known human carcinogens: benzene, 1,3-butadiene, and benz[a]pyrene.

Scrap tyres represent both a disposal problem and a resource opportunity. Air emissions from open tyre fires have been shown to be more toxic than those of a combustor, regardless of the fuel. Open tyre fire emissions include “criteria” pollutants, such as particulates, carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur oxides (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

They also include “non-criteria” hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), such as polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), dioxins, furans, hydrogen chloride, benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); and metals such as arsenic, cadmium, nickel, zinc, mercury, chromium, and vanadium. Both criteria and HAP emissions from an open tyre fire can represent significant acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) health hazards to firefighters and nearby residents.

Depending on the length and degree of exposure, these health effects could include irritation of the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes, respiratory effects, central nervous system depression, and cancer. Firefighters and others working near a large tyre fire should be equipped with respirators and dermal protection.

Similarly, there has concern on the incessant and continued uncontrolled open burning of seized products by Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and National Agency for Food and Drug Administration Control (NAFDAC), which an environment group, SRADev Nigeria condemned.

The group, particularly reviewed with outmost concern the open burning of seized used tyres in Lagos by Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and condemned this in entirety. It viewed this act by a government agency is myopic, people unfriendly and environmentally insensitive as it further demonstrates that the same custodians of environmental standards are first breakers of the law.

According to Leslie Adogame, Executive Secretary, SRADev Nigeria/National Coordinator, NGO Network on POPs Chemicals, “tyres are a composite of styrene-butadiene copolymer or natural rubber, chloroprene, polyamide, steel wire, carbon black and numerous other organic and inorganic additives. Poor combustion of large volumes of tyres in open burning situations is a source of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) – Dioxin and Furans, and will certainly be a prodigious generator of other hazardous pollutants, including SO2 and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

“These compounds may form during open burning regardless of the composition of the material being burnt. The compounds produced from open burning can travel long distances and deposit on soil, plants, and in water.

“The remaining ash in the burnt pile also contains pollutants, which can spread into the soil and water. Animals and fish ingest the pollutants and accumulate them in their tissues, while plants can absorb them through their leaf surfaces.

“ When this contaminated food is eaten, the pollutants are passed on to humans. Additionally, smoke and particulates from open burning sources can trigger respiratory health problems, particularly among children, the elderly, and people with asthma or other respiratory diseases, and those with chronic heart or lung disease.

“Open burning is unhealthy because it releases toxic pollutants that can cause shortness of breath and headaches, infuriate the eyes, throat and skin, cause lung irritation and congestion, and trigger cancers and other life-threatening health issues like lung and kidney failure,” Adogame said.

Although the Stockholm Convention is concerned with Persistent Organic Pollutants such as Dioxins and Furans, PCB and hexachlorobenzene (HCB) as products of incomplete combustion, open burning is responsible for generation of toxic by-products of combustion well beyond the named chemicals. Other by-products include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, particulate matter, benzene and carbon monoxide.

The most notorious among these pollutants are dioxins, a proven human carcinogen according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, that can cause cancers and other serious disorders in the reproductive, developmental, immune and nervous systems. Aside from dioxins, burning tyres also releases a toxic soup of pollutants including lead, mercury and other heavy metals, carbon monoxide, solvents, numerous products of incomplete combustion and other chemicals of concerns.

Whereas Nigeria is a signatory to Stockholm Convention since May 2001 and other similar global framework like Basel Convention, it has also been in the forefront of African regional climate change interventions and campaigns. At a time that governments the world over are frantically making committed efforts to address environmental challenges such as climate change and atmospheric pollution, Nigeria cannot continue to be seen to continuously carry out such environmentally irresponsive acts and yet go “cap-in-hand” for international aids to tackle its numerous environmental problems.

The group recalled and noted that the basis of environmental policy in Nigeria is contained in the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Pursuant to section 20 of the Constitution, “the State is empowered to protect and improve the environment and safeguard the water, air and land, forest and wildlife of Nigeria”.

Whereas the Federal Government of Nigeria has promulgated various laws and regulations to safeguard the Nigerian environment, such as the National Environmental Protection (Management of Solid and Hazardous Wastes) and Harmful Wastes (Special Criminal Provisions etc) Act of 1988 (Harmful Wastes Act), Regulations made pursuant to the FEPA Act. In Lagos State, the Environmental Pollution Control Law is also in place to provide for the control of pollution and protection of the environment from abuse due to poor waste management. Yet government agencies themselves continue to pollute the environment with impunity. How do we now advise other sectors of the society to stop pollution.

The group advised that worn tyres seized can be retreaded and reused in many cases. Waste tyres may be reused whole, shredded or cryoground into powder or land filled. Processed tyres can be used in rubber-modified asphalt for road surfacing materials. Shredded and ground tyres can also be compressed and used in building materials. Shredded tyres are used as a cushioning material for playgrounds. And called on the appropriate agencies to embrace the principles of recycling and re-use in the management of seized tyres and products.

“We would like to remind the government and the public that used tyres become a toxic waste when they are set in flames,” Adogame said.

The NGO therefore called on SON and NAFDAC should henceforth discontinue the open burning of used tyres or seized fake drugs as is the usual practice and embrace environmentally sound management practices.

It also wants NESREA to exercise its mandate of regulating and enforcing the management of this products and appropriate sanctions meted to any government agency or industry for that matter as well as urged Lagos State Ministry of Environment to urgently re-constitute the inter-governmental committee set up years ago (but non-functional) in this respect to forestall future occurrence.

The Minister of Environment, Dr. Mohammad Mahmood Abubakar, said recently, that the ministry has begun discussion with SON and NAFDAC to end open burning of seized goods, especially tyres.

Meanwhile, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David Boyd has flayed
several governments for their plans to lower environmental standards, or other related measures.

“In light of the global environmental crisis that predates COVID-19, these actions are irrational, irresponsible, and jeopardize the rights of vulnerable people”, he said.

“Such policy decisions are likely to result in accelerated deterioration of the environment and have negative impacts on a wide range of human rights including the rights to life, health, water, culture, and food, as well as the right to live in a healthy environment”.

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of having a safe, clean and sustainable natural environment, according to Mr. Boyd.

“The science is clear”, he said. “People living in areas that have experienced higher levels of air pollution face increased risk of premature death from COVID-19. Similarly, access to clean water is essential in preventing people from contracting and spreading the virus.

“Scientists warn that deforestation, industrial agriculture, illegal wildlife trade, climate change and other types of environmental degradation increase the risk of future pandemics, raising the probability of major human rights violations”, said Mr. Boyd.

“As COVID-19 is demonstrating, pandemics can undermine the rights of billions of people, especially those who are already vulnerable to environmental harm including people living in poverty, minorities, elderly, indigenous peoples, women and children.”


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