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Air pollution: Rivers resident decry invasion by black soot

By Kelvin Ebiri, South-South Bureau Chief
19 February 2017   |   5:21 am
Despite the thoroughly degraded environment, which they have had to contend with over the years, there appears to be no end in sight to the vicissitudes of life plaguing residents of Rivers State.

Some residents of Rivers State protesting the invasion by black soot.

Govt Plans Safety Measures

Despite the thoroughly degraded environment, which they have had to contend with over the years, there appears to be no end in sight to the vicissitudes of life plaguing residents of Rivers State.

Right now, anxiety is building in the state over the deteriorating air quality, a development that forced some residents of Port Harcourt, the state capital to take to the streets demanding that government takes decisive steps to tackle the rising air pollution.

Soot is a black powdery or flaky substance consisting largely of amorphous carbon, produced by the incomplete burning of organic matter.

In the recent past, levels of particulate matter (which is popularly referred to as soot) is prevalent in the air in Port Harcourt, Obio-Akpor, Ikwerre, Okrika, and Eleme local councils

In these areas, these substances settle on just anything including rooftops, floors, cars, washed clothes and so on. The dangerous bent to it, however, is the fact that in recent times, the soot has risen to almost 11 times above the recommended safety level set by the World Health Organisation.

Particulate matter, also known as particle pollution, is a complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets that get into the air. Once inhaled, these particles can affect the heart and lungs and cause serious health effects.

Spotting nosemasks, the protesters wielded placards, which bore inscriptions like, “Save our lungs,” “Let us breath, stop soot,” “The lives of our children matter,” “Soot kills. Stop soot,” and “Stop the soot, save Rivers,” among others.

They also demanded that both the federal and state governments should, expeditiously come up with the most effective ways of curbing the rising air pollution in the state.

Nollywood actress, Hilda Dokubo, who was among the protesters said the sudden saturation of Port Harcourt atmosphere with soot, arising from imperfect combustion, has triggered health concerns among the residents.

She said if the situation is not tackled decisively, residents of the city, particularly children under the age of five, would suffer from severe respiratory infections.

“People are dropping dead daily because of asthmatic attack, even those who weren’t known to suffer from asthma,” she lamented.

Another resident of the state capital, Ross George, complained that parents are becoming agitated whenever they clean the nostrils of their children only to discover layers of soot.

“Our environment is becoming more polluted, and we have waited since November last year to get a response from government, which has not yet come. We are increasingly worried as the situation worsens, and we are becoming agitated. So, we need to know what is going on. We need to be reassured that investigation and analysis are going on.”

Another protester described the air quality in Port Harcourt, Eleme and Rukpokwu at present as very poor by global standards, and urgent steps are required to address the situation.

In sharing this view, Mr. Eli Emeka, told The Guardian that Port Harcourt and its environs, especially Eleme, Abuloma, Iwofe, Rupokwu, Okrika, Woji, were gradually turning into a gas chamber, particularly for children.

“Every day, you can see smog hanging all over the city as a result of pollution. You can longer wash white clothes and spread them outside because of soot. Floors in residential houses and offices, cars are covered with soot. The levels, from investigation, are extremely high, breaching the safe limit by over 11 times at several places in Port Harcourt. This is a health emergency,” he said.

A native of Eleme, who identified himself as Obari Theo, also told The Guardian that it was disheartening that environmental agencies at both the federal and state levels have failed to take cognisance of the fact that for years, petrochemical outfits and refineries operating in Eleme have been belching plumes of soot into the atmosphere.

On the social media, a growing number of persons have been ventilating their anger over governments’ handling of the air pollution in the state, just as residents have been uploading photographs showing how soot has taken over their homes, and calling on the government to do more to protect the environment and citizens.

Concerned by the air pollution, the state government recently set up a taskforce headed by the Commissioner of Environment, Prof. Roslyn Konya, to explore ways of containing the menace.

An air pollution analysis report published by the state Ministry of Environment, revealed that Port Harcourt is one of the most polluted cities in the country.

Konya while addressing the agitated residents, explained that based on her ministry’s investigation, it was discovered that the soot is largely petroleum-based, as a result of incomplete combustion of hydrocarbon.

She assured the people that the state government is using the process of climatology and emission modelling to trace sources of the black soot in the state capital, adding that tests have already been conducted in certain parts of the city, with a view to tracing possible sources.

“We have sampled two sites namely, Abuloma and Peter Odili Road, and you have to sample from 12 midnight to 6am. And then from 6am to 8am to know that difference, whether there will be an increase or decrease from midnight or whether it will be higher or lower in the morning. I personally went with them,” Konya said.

According to her, “WHO acceptable level of particulate matter of 2.5 microns is the size of the soot. The acceptable level by WHO is 25 microgram per cubic metre. What we got was 270 micrograms per cubic metre and these values were got from the two sites between 12 midnight to 6 am. And then from 6am to 8am, we found out from Odili Road that the value was 62 microgram per cubic metre and then from Abuloma town was 124 microgram per cubic metre.

That means that there was a lowering of the content in the morning, and from midnight, it was very high. This shows that the activities producing this soot take place in the night,” she said.

The ministry’s findings, however, revealed that this soot was as a result of incomplete combustion of petroleum products, with refineries, and petro-chemical companies as suspected sources. The other sources include illegal refineries and burning of old car tyres to access copper imbedded in them.

A petroleum expert, Kombo Manson Braide, described as unfortunate, a recent statement by the Navy that 40 illegal refineries have been destroyed, including operating equipment, and storage facilities worth N3b in the process of battling illegal refining activities in the creeks of the Niger Delta.

“Quite unfortunately, such destruction by a combination of aerial, and gunboat bombardment leave a predictable trail of havoc, and ecological degradation behind: oil spills on land and marine environments, and copious inventories of soot, poor air quality, and thermal pollution due to fires and unconfined explosions. The sustained black smog over Port Harcourt is mainly due to the uncontrolled incineration of crude oil following military missions to destroy illegal refineries in the Niger Delta.

“The effect of the fires in the locations of burnt out illegal refineries is equivalent to the cumulative inventory of smoke and fire that would result from the incomplete combustion of 10 to 20 tanker-load of crude oil, at each of the 40 locations,” he explained.

Meanwhile, the state government has urged residents of parts of the state affected by soot to take precautionary measures including, “covering all foods; don’t drink rain or exposed water; don’t eat exposed roasted plantain and suya; keep doors and windows closed; mop floor regularly; keep children indoors and away from the floor; use nose mask (if intensity of soot is much in your area), while asthmatic persons to take extra care.”