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Lives at risk as constant effluence assaults pupils, teachers in Ogun school

By Gbenga Akinfenwa
11 September 2022   |   4:10 am
Compared to other 59 schools within Ewekoro Local Council of Ogun State, Baptist Day Primary School, Agbesi Estate, Ewekoro is a model.

Unsuspecting pupils inhale effluence in their school’s playground, while tree covers are stained with the emission. Towering in the background is the Lakatabu Kiln PHOTO: GBENGA AKINFENWA

Compared to other 59 schools within Ewekoro Local Council of Ogun State, Baptist Day Primary School, Agbesi Estate, Ewekoro is a model.
 


Built in the 1972 by the then West Africa Portland Cement Company (WAPCO), as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) for its host communities, it plays host to pupils from Akinbo, Ewekoro, Iyana-Egbado, Itori, Abule-Oko, Sepeti, Abule Otun, Baase, Okuboye, Oko Lemo, Alabe, Kajola, Elebute, Alagutan, Papalanto, Oke-Oko and Agbesi among others. In terms of physical structure, aesthetics, and general setting, the school, by all standards, is better than the others. 
  
A few years ago, the school experienced a major facelift, in which the company put the cost at over N20m. The refurbishment led to the rehabilitation of five blocks of 14 classrooms, provision of 300 students’ chairs and desks, 400 pairs of school uniforms, toilets, electrification of the school, and the provision of a science laboratory, which turned it into a model school, and the envy of other schools in the local council.
  
Unfortunately, despite all the appurtenances meant to enhance 21st Century knowledge acquisition, the school has become something akin to a “danger zone” to the hapless pupils, their teachers, and the non-teaching staff alike No thanks to its location.
 
The once habitually clean school environment, devoid of noxious gases and other pollutants has become home to dust, microscopic solids, and liquids particles, emitting from the donor company’s new plant.
 

Commissioned in 2011, the plant, christened – Ewekoro II (Lakatabu Kiln), is situated about 50 metres from the school. Even though the new plant has facilitated increased output in the company, this expansion has, however, led to severe pains and agony in the host communities. The school bears the direct brunt of the air pollution, even as it has been coping with the deafening noise arising from blasting at the quarry, as well as the effect of the accompanying vibration.
  
Since the new plant took off, the routine plume of dust emitted into space and the attendant health hazard arising from the emission have become major sources of worry to teachers and some parents.
  
The Guardian, on a recent visit to the school, was welcomed by a cloud of dust and smoke – whitish dust particles in the form of droplets floating in the atmosphere.
  
While the roofs of the classrooms, staffrooms, and toilets are discoloured, the water tanks, windows, flowers, economic trees, and the entire surrounding vegetation all have traces of sedimented waste.
   
While the company insists that it deploys the best available dust abatement technology, and also operates below the permissible emission limits, the state government insists that the prevalence of discoloured leaves does not translate to pollution.
  
Even though there are no established cases of prevalent diseases and developing health challenges among the pupils, and their teachers, medical experts claim that the constant inhalation of the effluence, which penetrates the respiratory system could cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, reproductive and central nervous system dysfunction, bronchitis and lung cancer.
  
“I constantly fell sick when I was transferred to the school in 2017. I don’t always feel at ease, I was always restless and uncomfortable, which was unlike me. Coupled with this, I developed sunburn on my face and itchy skin. I discovered that I do feel relaxed whenever I return home after school hours with all the symptoms disappearing till another day when I get back to school. It took me many months to discover that the problem was due to my daily exposure to the emission from the plant,” said Mrs. Bridget Okon (not real name), a former teacher at the school.
 
Okon’s story is similar to what many teachers and pupils have, who have no choice but to adapt to the unpleasant condition till they exit school.
 
Continuing, Okon said: “My face wasn’t like this when I was transferred to that school. I would just start having reactions on my skin while at work, but I couldn’t fathom the cause. I discovered that whenever I am at home, I do feel cool, and relaxed and never had the terrible feelings that I had while in school. Whenever I fall sick, alongside some of my colleagues, we resorted to the use of antibiotics and other tablets to lessen the effect of the effluence on our system. That was what we were using until I was transferred miraculously away from there.
 
“Before I was transferred there, we were made to believe that staff of the company that resides within and around the estate usually get special packages as a result of the constant exposure to the harmful dust; we thought the gesture would be extended to us, but for the entire period that I was there, we didn’t enjoy any special treatment or any special bonus. It was God’s mercy and our prayers that kept us.”
 
Okon did not visit any doctor or medical expert that established the nexus between the effluence and her constant sickness or skin problems, but she insisted that the horrible feelings and skin irritation that she underwent usually happened when she was at work.
  

“Part of the protective measures we adopted then, apart from the use of facemask, was the regular intake of milk and palm oil to lessen the impact of the emission in our respiratory system, and this expense we bore individually.”
  
Okon blamed both the local and state governments for the dire health condition that teachers and students of the school are going through saying, “an environmental case of this magnitude ought to have attracted the attention of the inspectorate/monitoring unit of the Education Ministry Officers. Reports ought to have been made to appropriate authorities on this development, and recommendations/steps taken to end it to save the lives of the pupils and their teachers.”
   
As a long-term solution to the menace, Okon advised that the school should be relocated to a more conducive environment, where the safety of the pupils and the teachers would be guaranteed.
   
“The school has two annexes currently – Akinbo and Alaguntan, relocating the students to the annexes will not be a good idea because the two schools are far apart, and it’ll make pupils coming from far distances like Abule-Oko, Papalanto, Egbado among others to serious difficulties.
  
“It appears the company has been trying its best to relocate the school, but maybe there is a disagreement with some of the communities; maybe it is thinking along that direction, but presently, there is no body language that is suggestive of that.”
  
During The Guardian’s visit to the school, the head teacher of the school was not available. But his lieutenants declined to comment on the issue, stressing that as civil servants, they had not the mandate to do so. 
 
Instead, one of them told the reporter to observe the emission and have a first-hand experience of what it means to work in such a location.
 
Upon complying with his advice, the volume of effluence that settled on the reporter’s notebook was enormous.

Surfaces around the school premises, including door and window panes, desks and tables, and the entire surrounding, including the plantations are all stained with effluence.
  
“If you leave your seat just for a few minutes, by the time you return to it, you’ll marvel at the amount of effluence that has settled on it. If you now link this to what we inhale every second for seven hours – from Mondays to Fridays, it’s dangerous and life-threatening. If you are eating, you must cover it, unless you want the cement to be part of the menu,” one of the teachers volunteered.
 


The Guardian reliably learnt that one head teacher who was posted to the school, hurriedly “worked” his transfer away from the school upon sensing the dire health hazard that constant exposure to the emission poses to his health.
 
When The Guardian visited him in his residence around Ifo, in Ifo Local Council, he said: “It’s one of the schools where head teachers are posted based on seniority. When I was posted there, I was happy, especially due to the distance between my house and the school, as well as its location, which is very close to the Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway.
  
“But when I looked at the uncontrolled cement effluence emanating from the plant, I couldn’t cope; I had to work my transfer away from the school. The effect of what the pupils and the teachers are going through may not be immediate, but it will manifest later in the future, and that is why I ran for my dear life.”
 
Another former teacher, a female, who left before the plant was erected, said the experience was different when she taught in the school.
  
“The environment was serene and conducive for learning. Since it was the bush and the sugarcane plantation that surrounded us then, we always breathe in the fresh air, but the story I am hearing from there currently is disturbing.”
 
She advised that the school should be relocated to another place to save the teachers and pupils dire health challenges in the future.
 
Commenting on the situation, a Disaster and Risk Management expert, Prof. Usman A. Kibon, said that the situation has very serious implications, as daily exposure to the emission can cause lung cancer, skin irritation, and many issues that can affect human health.
  
Kibon, who is the Director, Centre for Disaster Risk Management and Development Studies, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna State, said: “Considering the period that the plant has been in use, if you examine the blood sample, administer blood pressure test and other such tests on the pupils, teachers, and people that live around the place, you’ll easily see the difference.
 
“Even though they may not present as many cases right now, as time goes on, they’ll begin to experience diverse reactions, and the level that it will be growing will be worrisome because what is happening affects children more than the adults.”
 
The don, who explained that the implication is not limited to the pupils and teachers, continued: “In a nutshell, it has very serious implications because such emissions causes lung cancer, skin irritation, and so many issues that are affecting human health. When it also affects the community’s source of drinking water, it results in many problems including typhoid, diarrhoea and so many other diseases that are very difficult to control.
   

“This condition also has implications on the soil, and when this happens, the soil is degraded and would not accept anything. In other words, you can’t plant, and even if you do, the crop will not grow well, hence the vegetation will be affected.
  
“The environment or land surface itself is made up of many constituent materials, or components, such as land, water, soil, rocks, and others. These are what make up the environment and when all these elements are intact – there is natural space, that’s when we have a conducive or friendly environment. But when one or more of these elements are affected, we’ll begin to have what is called environmental pollution, land degradation, and other issues related to that.
  
“Nowadays, the liquid or effluence either through discharge from hospitals, factories, and other related activities affects the entire environment and public health simply using leaking of liquids into the surface and underground water. Not only humans but even fish and other aquatic animals that are found within the water are also affected.
  
“Don’t forget that the people around, or even those living in distant places would catch these animals, feed on them, and these harmful substances are transferred to humans. So, this effluence and other discharges coming from many human activities simply contribute to a chain of problems.”
   
Kibon further disclosed that the situation would have been averted if the concerned agencies do their job effectively: “In the first place, if you want to build a factory, there are laid down standards; there is something that is called a buffer, and it depends on the magnitude or the amount of effluence coming from the factory.
  
“There are also environmental standards that are laid down by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and the Ministry of Environment. If concerned agencies of government do their jobs effectively, there would not be problems. Every activity on the earth surface has environmental implications. But this shouldn’t have happened if proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was carried out …”
 
The Guardian also confirmed that immense farming activities in Ewekoro community, which is the host community of the plant, and neighbouring communities like Akinbo, Iyana-Egbado, and Adunbu have been put on hold, and the farmers have abandoned their farmlands for other lucrative endeavours.
   
In a recent chat with the Baale of Lapeleke, Chief Gabriel Taiwo Olusesan, revealed that before the arrival of the company to the area, cocoa and kola nut were the major crops cultivated by his people, noting that those crops have gone for good.
  

“The problem of effluence in the atmosphere has been on since the WAPCO days, and it has continued over the years. A lot of things have happened over the years and we have made several representations to appropriate quarters, but the fact is that Lafarge is doing its best.
 
“The dust is affecting our farmers, by stopping them from farming. Whenever they plant, they cannot get 100 per cent of their harvests. It’s obvious that the effect of the dust is everywhere, but we have been having a good relationship with Lafarge.”     
 
Investigations showed that the negative effect of exploitation on the communities has gravely impacted crop production.

According to experts, cement dust is responsible for causing the epidermal cells and stomata of the polluted leaves to become modified. Higher stomata frequency and index in the leaves of polluted plants indicate morphological modification on the leaves.

Cement dust deposits on plants interfere with the biosynthesis of chlorophyll and damage leaf cells, resulting in a reduction in photosynthesis. Oxides of cement dust may react with water droplets, forming acid rain, which damages the soil vegetation, and land.
  
Apart from affecting photosynthesis in plants, it was further learnt that dust might affect respiration, and transpiration and allow the penetration of phytotoxic gaseous pollutants. Visible injury symptoms may occur and generally, there is decreased productivity.
   
It is an understatement to say that the development, which has led to a shortage of food, especially cassava, maize, and vegetables in the area, has been escalated by population increase due to high demand for certain food items, as a result of the abandonment of farming by inhabitants.
  
Another farmer, the Otun Baale of Adunbu town, Chief Sobakin John Yaya, who has been a practicing farmer for over 15 years, with specialisation in cassava, plantain, maize, and vegetable cultivation, said that the negative impact of the dust on crops has forced the majority of the farmers to seek alternative sources of income, while others have relocated to other communities.
  
He said: “When I left the employ of the company in 2005, I went into farming together with one Fagbenro, an engineer who resided at Iyana-Egbado, but is now dead. The major setback to us was the air pollution from Lafarge factory, as the dust affected our crops. It was a serious setback to all farmers in the area, despite several steps that were taken to control the pollution. At a time, we engaged a lawyer to seek an end to the issue, but at the end of the day, the case was inconclusive.
  


“Now, scores of our people that are farmers have left the trade and only a few of us are left. It is sad to note that some are now commercial motorcyclists, while some who came here purposely because of farming, have returned to their communities. Since they noticed that farming is no longer lucrative here, they have relocated, and only a few of us are still struggling to cultivate despite the threat posed by the pollution.”
   
A consultant community physician, Prof. Adamu Shehu, who said that the challenge posed by the situation was “a very big issue,” explained that there is a nexus between what is happening in society and a lung condition called silicosis, which destroys the lungs.
 
Prof. Shehu, a lecturer in the Community Health Department, ABU, Zaria, said: “It is a very big issue, and that’s why most times we try as much as possible to advice that the building of such factories should be done far away from residential areas. Now, that it has already been established, there’s a serious risk of pollution. It will be emitting a lot of dust with some particles that are inimical to the health of the children and even adults.
  
“As we speak, it could even be silica dust, which is associated with a lung condition that is called silicosis. Silica destroys the lungs gradually, and after a long time of being exposed to it, those who are exposed to the dust will develop symptoms like breathlessness – breathing (with difficulty), and constant coughing, which can lead to disability, and lung cancer. So, when one contracts lung cancer, what remains?” He said.
  
Shehu, who expressed deep concerns about the health of the pupils and teachers in the school, said that failure to adhere strictly to provisions of EIAs when it comes to siting factories and such outfits in residential areas, schools, and even markets was detrimental to human health.
   
However, since this has happened already, “there are some remedial measures that can be instituted, like giving adequate protection to the students and their teachers and other staff members, and this can be done through the use of protective apparel, including masks to cover their nostrils because once somebody is breathless, the function of the lung is compromised. At that point, any infection can easily settle there because the lungs have been weakened, hence its inability to clear all the organisms that have settled there.”
  
The Head, Communications, Public Affairs & Sustainable Development, Corporate Communications of Lafarge Africa Plc., Ginikanwa Frank-Durugbor, told The Guardian that the Lakatabu kiln and cement stacks were running on the best available dust abatement technology, and “so far, we have been operating below the Nigerian local regulations. Statutory emission and discharge monitoring are being done by government regulatory agencies.”
  

She added: “Also, we have a robust maintenance system for our dust abatement equipment to ensure that they are operating efficiently and effectively. Environmental Impact Assessment was done and approved by the Federal Ministry of Environment given before the execution of the Lakatabu Project.”
 
As a long-term plan to save the pupils, Frank-Durugbor said the company plans to sustainably keep the existing monitoring and maintenance system running since the effluence from the plant is well controlled.”
   
When The Guardian sought the views of the Ogun State Ministry of Environment, Oke-Mosan, Abeokuta, the commissioner, Oladimeji Oresanya, assigned his team to visit the school for an on-the-spot assessment of the state of affairs.
  
Two days after, the commissioner told The Guardian on the phone that even though his team noticed the prevalence of discoloured leaves, the interface with residents of the estate, and the school’s head teacher showed that there was no pollution.
  
“The team noticed that there were releases of emission on the vegetative covers. The head teacher, when contacted on phone, said that she had just been posted to the school, and was only in her eighth month, and insisted that there was no pollution. The residents of the estate also claimed the same thing. The team also went to the communities where the residents claimed that though there was pollution, but it was not much,” the commissioner claimed, adding that Lafarge’s was operating within the limit of the permissive level of dust abatement programme.
 
“Their stark emission record is clean enough and we cannot link the emission to the environment because they are operating within what the law says,” Oresanya said.

But a former Director of Medical Services, Ewekoro local council, Dr. Daniel Adewale Adesanya, who is the current Chairman, Association of Public Health Physicians in the state, faulted the submission of both the state and the company.

He said the pupils, their teachers and others living in the area, inhaling the emission are prone to what he called pneumoconiosis and silicosis diseases.
  


“Definitely, when there’s cement industry in a location, there is something called pneumoconiosis and silicosis, those around the vicinity who inhale the emission are not far from contracting the diseases. Even if a bricklayer is working in a particular place, the cement dust is not something that should be inhaled, not to talk of a place where it is manufactured.
 
“It is definitely going to affect the lungs of everybody, not only the pupils, but the pupils are at higher risk. Children have very low immunity, thus their ability to cope with stress is very low,” he said.
  
He appealed to the company and the state government, to join hands together to relocate the school if the kiln will still be operating; warning that failure to follow the advice will be inimical not only to the health of the children, but everybody around the area.
 
“Even the workers in the industry must have personal protective equipment that they must use to guard against inhaling the emission, which they are not giving the pupils and their teachers. In such a situation, the most ideal thing is to relocate the school since the kiln is sited close to the school.”