andra Hart almost lost her life in October 2021 to a protracted asthma attack she believed was triggered by soot covering many parts of Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, where she lives.
“My chest and ribs were blocked,” Ms Hart recalled.
Soot is a mass of impure carbon particles resulting from the incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons. According to Bieye Briggs, a public health physician resident in Port Harcourt, prolonged exposure to carbon and other components of soot, may make the human cells undergo mutation and become carcinogenic. This can cause many diseases affecting the heart, lungs, and brain.
Like most chronic asthma patients, Ms Hart will need clean air always in order not to cave to any attack, but even with her inhaler in hand and pumping into her mouth, she got no reprieve as the air around her thickened. She had to leave work.
“When we got to the hospital, I was already breathing very high. The doctor administered aminophylline injection, administered to asthmatic patients when the asthmatic attack is very serious. This injection, if not administered properly, kills the patient instantly. I have seen so many people die from having quack nurses administer this injection; so I am always scared whenever I have to take it,” she added.
Being in that condition was a swipe at death, however, she scaled through and made it back home after the injection. Yet she felt the battle had just begun, “I had a feeling I was about to have another attack. I went to my uncle’s house which was very close to mine.”
“I met my uncle’s wife. There was pain in my spine, my chest and ribs were blocked. I was so scared, I had never had that kind of attack in my life since I became asthmatic,” she narrated.
She had another attack. This time, however, a life-threatening emergency. She would not have made it to the hospital alive, so a nurse within the neighbourhood came to the rescue to administer the same injection for the second time on the same day, something experts say was risky.
When Ms Hart did not show any sign of getting better, afraid to have a casualty in her hands, “the nurse declared she could not handle my case anymore and advised that I be taken to the hospital”.
“We got to the hospital late in the evening. Before the doctor came, they got a nebuliser and then I lost consciousness, it was like I died,” Ms Hart narrated.
She said due to the intensity of the soot in Port Harcourt, her attacks have become more frequent than they used to be; she concluded so after her visit to Owerri, a neighbouring city where throughout her stay she felt a lot better.
Aside from causing or triggering respiratory diseases, as well as coating every surface in black, the Port Harcourt soot is also contaminating water, including the water consumed by residents but health experts and environmental advocates appear not to be paying attention.
PREMIUM TIMES collected water samples from Nonwa in Ogoni and Rumuagholu in Port Harcourt and handed the samples to the Standards Organisation of Nigeria for analysis at its laboratory.
The results of the analysis revealed that most of the water consumed in the areas covered by soot does not meet the standard requirements for potable water.
Residents of these areas use the water for different domestic purposes like cooking, drinking and bathing.
The test found the samples to be acidic (PH less than 6.5), with taste and odour. SON also found microbes, although in small quantities, present in the water as against international standards.
Ms Hart also drinks this water in addition to inhaling the contaminated air as well.
According to WHO, “although pH usually has no direct impact on consumers, it is one of the most important operational water quality parameters. Careful attention to pH control is necessary at all stages of water treatment to ensure satisfactory water clarification and disinfection.”
WHO said although the optimum pH required will vary in different supplies according to the composition of the water and the nature of the construction materials used in the distribution system, it is usually in the range of 6.5–8.5.
A market woman in Nonwa Uedume of Tai Local Government Area of Rivers State, who identified herself as Blessing, described a typical day in the area. She said it has been cloudy for some months and they continued to encounter challenges with their vision and also catarrh.
“Sometimes they say it is bunkering because they are cooking bunkering around us here. So we think it is the bunkering that is affecting the weather,” Ms Blessing said, referring to the illegal refining which many blame for the soot.
‘’If there is rain now, you will see white cloth will turn to red; everybody is complaining of catarrh and cough,” she added.
ThankGod, a commercial motorcyclist in Nonwa Uedume, said in April that they had been experiencing darkness in the past three months.
“When you wake up in the morning, you will notice you cannot see anyone or anything in front of you. Also, when you dip your hand into your nose, you will find black particles,” he said.
ThankGod said residents suspect it is caused by illegal refining activities in the state, adding that it also has an adverse effect on the health of residents, causing them to spend a lot.
Like Ms Hart, Mr ThankGod and Ms Blessing consume the water in these areas that have been found to be acidic by SON.
According to Taiwo Adelasanmi, a food technologist, “when you have a PH less than 6.5, that means it is tending towards being acidic; it is no longer really water as it is not pure.”
Mr Adelasanmi noted that impure water has numerous effects on human health but the most common is an imbalance in digestion, depending on the food consumed alongside the water, and heartburn.
“For water that contains mould and yeast, generally, moulds are poisonous. Water that contains them is no longer pure and can be injurious to health in varying degrees,” he said.
Additionally, Chifumnanya Odiaka, a microbiologist at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka, said consuming impure water could lead to diarrhoea, body pains, abdominal pain, weakness and in the long run organ failure.
He added that the effects of impure water consumption could be worse for people who are immunocompromised.
Water containing mould can also cause vagina infections in women, especially when used to bathe, Mr Odiaka said.
Ms Hart’s assertion that the soot is responsible for the intensified asthma attacks she has had to deal with is understandable. Although there is no similar study on adults, a 2016 study at Braithwaite Memorial Specialist Hospital, Port Harcourt by Agnes Fienamika, a paediatrician at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital (UPTH), showed an increase in the prevalence of Acute Respiratory Infections (ARI) among under-five children between September and December 2016 when compared to the same period in the previous year.
This increase in ARI coincides with the emergence of black soot in Port Harcourt. In 2016, residents started to notice heavy smog hanging over their heads every morning.
The study titled “Prevalence of Acute Respiratory Infections among Children Under Five Years Old in a Hospital in Port Harcourt, Nigeria: A Two Year Follow-Up Study”, found the situation to be worrisome as there was an increase in morbidity and mortality from recurrent respiratory illnesses among under-five children in Port Harcourt.
‘’I would describe the soot situation in Port Harcourt as very alarming, in fact, it is getting worse every day. It’s terrible,’’ she said.
Ms Fienamika also noted that the major cause of soot in Port Harcourt are oil exploration activities, indiscriminate combustion of fossil fuel, which has increased in recent times resulting in profound air pollution; and vehicular emissions.
Commenting on the effect of soot on residents of the city, Ms Fienamika said, ‘’Of course, it has harmful effects on the residents of Port Harcourt. Short-term effects include an increase in respiratory illnesses, allergies and severe asthmatic attacks; long-term effects stem from chronic inhalation of carcinogenic compounds in soot into the respiratory system.’’
Respiratory tract infection
ieye Briggs, a public health physician resident in Port Harcourt, told PREMIUM TIMES that he almost lost his six-month-old daughter who had recurrent nasal congestion and upper respiratory tract infection as a result of the soot.
“She cannot breathe through her nose, she breathes through her mouth. She still has to breastfeed and respire through her mouth. This is a classic example of a patient who I have seen suffer the consequences of soot.
“What is happening in Port Harcourt is of exponential proportions. There is no way you can describe what is really happening in words,” he said.
About four million people living in Rivers State are exposed to the effects of soot, according to Mr Briggs. Although there are flash points for the soot, he said the mobility of air makes it impossible for any resident to be spared of the effects.
Port Harcourt, the coastal capital of Nigeria’s south-south state of Rivers, has seen an exponential increase in cases of respiratory infections over a period of four years, according to health experts interviewed for this report, owing mainly to the illegal refining of crude in various parts of the city.
Mr Briggs said the soot cannot be seen except with the use of an electron microscope. It can only be seen with the naked eye when it has settled on surfaces over time.
“Because of its size, the soot goes right into our nostrils and to the alveolar spaces where gaseous exchanges take place,” the physician told PREMIUM TIMES.
Mr Briggs noted that a significant difference in activities occurs in the alveolar space as a result of the soot.
‘’In the presence of carbon (a chief component of soot), the red blood cells have a higher affinity for carbon than oxygen. Whenever both gases are present at the same time in the alveolar, the red blood cell picks up carbon, which is deadly to human cells, instead of oxygen,” he said.
He added that residents of the city are also prone to lung cancer owing to the unhindered inhalation of soot.
“The air quality index of Port Harcourt is nothing to write home about; we are dying slowly but surely,” he said.
Mr Briggs who works at the university hospital in the city said he had seen patients who had no asthma history become asthmatic; children with recurrent cases of upper respiratory tract infection; and asthmatic patients having an increased incidence of asthmatic attacks caused by the soot.
“Although it is not 100 per cent certain that these are caused by the soot, it is probable that the soot is responsible. We are looking for grants to carry out investigations and we can prove from our scientific research that soot might be responsible for some of the ailments that are on the rise.”
Also, a consultant respiratory physician at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital (UPTH), Collins Ordu, noted that the soot situation is getting worse by the day and will reach a catastrophic level if not checked.
“We are yet to see the full dimension of this problem as it were because this soot has a lot of particulate matter depositing in the lungs and airways. In years or even months to come, we might be seeing an explosion of respiratory-related diseases,” he told PREMIUM TIMES, calling the phenomenon a huge public health emergency.
He also accused the government of handling the situation with kid’s gloves and indirectly encouraging ‘the boys’ to continue in this illegal act of illegal petroleum product refinery.
Mr Ordu noted that the number of patients at the respiratory clinic has increased progressively as the soot situation worsens.
“I did some study looking at lung function in people who stay in communities that do not have gas flares versus those who stay in communities with a lot of gas flares. I found an increased amount of deterioration in lung function for people who live in gas flaring communities.”
He said people who live in areas where gas flaring occurs are at risk of respiratory illnesses.
“In 2020, on our clinic days, we had five new cases (not old cases) but in 2021, the number doubled to 10 new cases on clinic days.”
Beyond the health implication, soot, which is largely a carbon emission, is a climate pollutant. When suspended in the atmosphere, it contributes to warming by converting incoming solar radiation to heat.
Nigeria like many other countries of the world has committed to reducing carbon emissions to zero by the year 2060. However, there are questions as to how it will meet such an ambitious goal owing to its dependence on oil.
Why residents are killing themselves slowly
or Mr Briggs, unemployment remains the major propeller for the residents of Rivers State who are involved in illegal refining.
“Members of oil-bearing communities have been ostracised from the business of oil and gas exploration and exploitation,” he said. “Members of these communities are suffering from environmental degradation from pollution, including their farmlands and rivers.”
He added that members of these communities do not see themselves as partners or benefit positively from the oil they produce, hence the illegal exploration.
Mr Briggs also accused the government of not doing enough to stop the menace, saying the illegal refining sector makes up for the deficit in legal production.
“In the course of the #StopTheSoot campaign, we interacted with DPR, as it then was, who told us in frank terms that in the past eight years, it has not been producing kerosene and we know that 80 per cent of the Nigerian population use kerosene as their domestic fuel.”
Rhetorically, Mr Briggs asked, “If for eight years the government has not produced yet people are using kerosene every day to cook, you now ask a fundamental question on where people are getting the kerosene they use from?”
For Mr Ordu, greed and the quest to make money at all cost is the reason why residents get involved in these activities.
He does not agree that inequality or poverty could lead anyone to engage in such a risky venture.
“What inequality or poverty will lead one to put him/herself and a huge number of the populace at such an amount of risk?” he asked.
Solutions to Port Harcourt soot
ccording to Ms Fienamika, ‘’the best way to curb this menace is an unrelenting effort by all stakeholders to terminate indiscriminate combustion of fossil fuels and gas flaring in this city. All hands should be on deck to make Port Harcourt what it was known for, a Garden City free of particulate matter and pollutants in our Air space.’’
The government is not oblivious of the soot problem and its attendant health crisis. In January, Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers lamented the situation but heaped the blame on the federal government.
He said his administration had requested the federal government to intervene and stop illegal oil bunkering and artisanal crude oil refiners in the state.
“Unfortunately, the federal government has remained inexplicably silent over our request and even complicit to a large extent with the security agencies actively aiding, encouraging and protecting the artisanal refiners to continue with their harmful activities unabated,” Mr Wike said.
While the blame game continues among government officials, Mr Briggs, the physician, said the establishment of modular refineries and training of artisanal refiners will reduce the activities that cause the soot in Port Harcourt.
‘’Government should come on board to train and retrain them, and give licensing for modular and cellular refineries so that the boys will stop doing this in a crude manner.’’
He added that licensing for modular refineries would enable the government to regulate the activities of artisanal refiners, generate revenue by way of tax and also provide solutions to the petroleum problems of Nigeria.
Ms Hart, for whom asthma attacks have become more frequent, said the only option is to put a stop to artisanal refining. This will be hard because the authorities are also benefitting from the scheme, she said.
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