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Port Harcourt: Is there a link between respiratory tract infections and black soot? (II)

This is the second part of an investigation exploring the crippling impact of black carbons on human health and the environment. It is supported by the Rotary Club of Port Harcourt Eco,

Fyneface Dumnamene Fyneface endures a daily battle with soot in his house.

Soot fights Fyneface
“I am having a daily fight against soot in my house, and soot is fighting back because I campaign against it” says Fyneface Dumnamene Fyneface, an Environmental Activist and Human Rights defender, with a hint of a smile on his face. He continues “In my house because I have tiles on the floor, I don’t wear slippers or any form of footwear. As I walk around the house, my feet are already dirty with thick black substances. When I touch something which I haven’t touched or handled for two or three days, there will be soot on it. Despite the existence of mosquito nets, it still penetrates the house.”

Fyneface is the Executive Director, Youth and Environmental Advocacy Centre. He adds “how you will really know that it is penetrating is when you walk barefooted, or when you try to service your air conditioners. When you open the air conditioner filters, you will see what the air conditioner had on its own done to save and protect you, by isolating the black soot. Every month I try to service my air conditioners. The room where I sleep is the worst in terms of the soot captured by the air conditioning system. I don’t know if it’s because that’s where I sleep. I campaign against soot and it seems that soot is fighting back.”

‘D line very bad ’
“When you leave the house and you look into the sky, you will see the soot in the form of dark clouds. You will think it is going to rain, but it won’t. That is soot. If you are in a vehicle in Port Harcourt and you do not use the air conditioning system, and your windows are always open, you will be inhaling poison. In your office you encounter soot every day. The D line area of port Harcourt is one of the worst areas, compared to what is happening in other parts of the city,” he says.

Related: Port Harcourt: Is there a link between respiratory tract infections and black Soot?

Soot falls upon exposed food items and meals, which people readily buy and consume.

D line was the setting for a huge fire which broke out in late November. It is believed that illegally refined products were stored in the building that caught fire. Another fire broke out at Nembe jetty, as well as another at an illegal oil dumpsite in Rumuokoro axis of Obio/Akpor local government area. All these resulted in loss of properties, and have become additional sources for the emission of soot in the city. Kpo fire products are cheaper than those available from other sources, and therefore constitute a huge trading activity among the people.

‘Irreversible damage’
Professor Babatunde Bernard who served on the committee set up by the rivers state government to investigate the sources of soot, sheds light on its impact on aquatic life. His words: “There are many behavioural changes or even reproductive changes that will happen to both male and female. Some of the substances in Soot have the capacity to interfere and feminise eggs. The female lays a thousand eggs and all of them turn out to be feminine or masculine. All the siblings that hatch out, all of them turn out to be male. Where will they find a female to lay the next eggs? They can actually go to the gene level and alter some things there, and the organism is not able to reproduce.”

Soot.

‘Everyone is a smoker’
In a 2018 interview with this reporter, Eugene Abels, Convener of the Stop the Soot campaign explains “There are two levels of Soot. One is of 10 microns, and the other ids 2.5 microns. We are worried about the 2.5 microns which you don’t see and which has capacity to go into your lungs. That’s what we are worried about. Technically, what this means is that for the past twenty one months, the people of rivers state have been smoking without a filter, every cigarette has a filter. You are smoking, you are inhaling because it gets into your bedroom, and falls on your food, anything you don’t cover, because you don’t see it.”

‘Very scary’
Soot has significant implications for children. “We invited Dr. Bieye Briggs and he spoke passionately on the impact of Soot on children. One of the key things that he said is was that even if government stopped soot today, what has been absorbed by the children in the body, the impact of that can last for many more years to come. That is very scary. We need to look at what is happening to the adults, what is happening to our children. Are we creating a future for the children if this is happening?” adds Ms. Okon. She reflects “We are looking at a multi stakeholder approach, looking at the solution from different angles and perspectives. We are also looking at it from the health aspect. What are the health implications of soot? What are the health implications for women, health implications for men, as well as the physically challenged?”

She comments on the Rotary Club of Port Harcourt Eco. Hear her: “This is the second Rotary cause based club, specifically focused on the environment. It is the second in Africa, and the first in West Africa. Our mandate is environment protection, environmental conservation and climate change issues.” The club organised a Stop the Soot conference on December 9, where stakeholders brainstormed on the way forward.

Dr. Dantoye Alasia is convinced that there is a link between Soot and respiratory tract infections

‘There is a link’
Dr. Dantoye Alasia is a consultant physician and respiratologist “Yes, there is a link, an obvious and established link between Soot and the rise of respiratory infections in port Harcourt. Talking about soot kind of narrows it down. What we are dealing with is air pollution, and when there is air pollution, there are a lot of things that go into the air, things that shouldn’t be there naturally.

“The real problem is the degree of air pollution, and how poor our air quality is. Finding soot is part of the evidence that we have a massive air pollution issue. Across the world it is known that air pollution is a major contributor to respiratory diseases and death.”

The respiratologist who is also Head Respiratory and Infectious Diseases Unit, University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital (UPTH) argues “In areas where air pollution and air quality is poor, definitely those risks for lung disease and respiratory disease will be higher. We look at the pattern of respiratory presentation, and we found that there was a peak and that peak coincides with the period of the public visibility of this soot. Air pollution builds over time, gets worse and then reaches those critical levels when it becomes obvious.”

Sandra’s story
Sandra Hart, 25, is asthmatic. She lives in Iwofe, a part of Port Harcourt which is frequently bathed in soot. She has observed that there is less soot in Bori where her parents live. At Iwofe she has experienced are more frequent and troubling asthma attacks.

Soot isolated by the filter of an airconditioning system (left). The filter after it has been washed (right)

Her words: “I have been having a series of attacks in the past three months. When I wake up in the morning we don’t open the windows. Even with that the house is always black. We mop the house every morning and night. As someone who is asthmatic, I need air, fresh air, and air is already polluted. I need to receive fresh air, whether its fresh air or it’s not. If I have an attack I need to have the aminophylline injection. You need fresh air thereafter, but because the air is not fresh, it’s as though the injection is not working.” Asthmatics naturally have huge difficulties healing in an environment which itself lacks fresh air.

Data from X-rays
Dr. Donaldson adds that chest X rays are on the rise. Hear him: “I cannot be very specific with the number, but I want to say that out of every ten persons presenting at the radiology department, six have come to do the chest X ray. Out of the six four relate to respiratory tract infections. This occurs on a daily basis from 2019 till now.’ He draws attention to the fact that non-smokers are coming down with chest infections because of the passive inhalation of toxic organic substances. The radiologist adds that soot and organic substances are destroying the lungs of people, and that there is a slight rise in the numbers of individuals coming down with lung cancer.

Foetal death, large head
In the long term soot will impact the human body in diverse ways “It can cause foetal death in the early trimester and it can result in chromosomal abnormalities. You see some children are born and they have birth defects. Soot can affect all systems of the body As long as blood can get to that system, it can affect it. Because of its sheer size which is 2.5 micrometres, it enters the blood, and anywhere the blood can get to in the body it gets there,” reveals Dr. Briggs providing more information on Soot.

A fire engulfed boats conveying illegally refined petroleum products at Nembe jetty.

He says “It can cause intra uterine growth restriction. For instance, the pregnancy is eight months, and the stomach is not distending and looks like it’s a three months old pregnancy. The child is not growing as it ought to. Again, the child may be born with a large head which is known as hydrocephalus. In addition the spinal cord in some cases may not grow to the point where it should terminate.”

‘Violence, poverty’
Social problems and the environment form an intricate ecosystem. Okon admits “If you are doing development work and you haven’t addressed issues of the environment, it’s like you haven’t started. All the social problems here are linked to the environment. If you look at conflict, violence, poverty, health, lack of access to water issues, issues of access to land, inequality , hunger, all these are linked to the environment. All the development issues are intersected with the environment. Everybody is more or less an environmental justice advocate or campaigner.”

Insufficient light
Soot can impact aquatic life as well as soils. “If soot covers the surface of water, that will inhibit sunlight from entering, it will impact on the ability of plants in water that are primary producers, the initiators of the food chain in water. These primary producers such as the phytoplants will not have enough light. They will not be able to start a proper food chain, and if they are not able to start a proper food chain, then there will be food scarcity in the water,” insists Professor Bernard, who is also an Environmental Scientist at the University of Port Harcourt.

An abandoned Kpo fire site near Borikiri

He reasons “When soot covers the soil, it has the capacity to inhibit the entrance of oxygen. The oxygen entry level into the soil will be affected, and this will create a lot of problems for the soil. Oxygen in the soil is very critical. The elements that create fertility in the soil, some of them need oxygen to do that. If they don’t have oxygen, then the soil cannot be fertile.” All these have implications for food security and preservation of species. He draws attention to the fact that Soot contains benzo(a)pyrene which has been confirmed to cause prostate cancer.

Professor Bernard speaks on the health impact of Soot “If they continue to drink water laden with soot, eventually there will be cancer issues in the nearest future. During our study respiratory tract infections increased significantly in the period pre and post soot. When I say significantly, I mean there was a clear difference between the respiratory tract infections reported before 2016 when soot was first noticed and the period after.”

Soot increases risks
“There are people who already have existing lung diseases. These may be asthmatics, people with chronic obstructive airway disease, and other forms of lung disease. These categories of people are worse off because with this inhalation of particulate matter, for asthmatics it may worsen the asthmatic situation. Those who have chronic obstructive airway disease, soot may accelerate the progression. Even if you do not have existing airway problems, it increases the risk of developing lung disease,” explains Dr. Alasia.

Renewable energy
On the way forward Mr. Fyneface states ‘The federal government should commit to their promise of giving licences for modular refineries. I am not saying that a modular refinery is not going to contribute to the soot, but it will be less compared to what is currently happening. We should begin to bring in policies that will make us move away from hydrocarbons to clean and renewable energy. That’s another way we can go. In addition all the agencies of government such as NESREA and NOSDRA must take the regulatory activities of their offices seriously, because if they fail to do so we will continue to have soot.”

Ross George prefers renewable energy as an alternative.

Political will
Speaking in the same vein, Ross George argues “We need political will involving the president, federal ministry of environment, and the state government. It’s not something you can do all at once, but you can start the process, start engaging the federal government, the United Nations. Use some level of advocacy, use the CSOs, and let them build trust with these Kpo fire boys, and start teaching them that there is a way you can burn this stuff without polluting the air.”

Raise awareness
“We need to raise awareness and government should look at the menace of soot as an emergency. We are not seeing this correlation instantly because people are not yet dying in numbers. The key point is that this needs to be seen as an emergency situation that seeks some kind of political will,” suggests Dr. Alasia. This is important and many lament that the state does not have a Commissioner for Environment, despite the ever present emergency which soot represents.

Kpo fire
“Of course, government should be able to provide alternatives to the boys doing the Kpo fire business, to discourage them from going back to it. Some of them confessed during our social studies with them, that if they had alternatives they would prefer that than doing the Kpo fire business. We advised government to establish a sustainable study in terms of air quality, so they can produce an air quality index to advice the public,” posits Professor Bernard who argues that the environment has a carrying capacity. He points out that once that is jettisoned, it will return whatever was put in it back to its source.

Dr. Medee makes a case for modular refineries as an alternative to artisanal refineries

Modular refineries
“We wish to interface directly with the youths engaged in the Kpo fire business. If we talk directly with them, we can organise them and put them directly into cooperatives, and now use them to apply for the modular refinery. The modular refinery is possibly an alternative to the Kpo fire business. We thought it will be key to make them part of it. Then we will group them together and form cooperative society’s and apply for a licence,” says Dr. Peter Medee, Commissioner for Energy and Natural resources.

He declares “The population here is huge. Rivers is a destination and it is like the headquarters of the South South. Governor Wike is involved in huge infrastructural projects and the state is like a huge construction site. If we can provide infrastructure we can attract a lot of industries to the state. The more industries, the more jobs we will create. If we create more jobs, some of these boys in the illegal refining trade will no longer engage in what is illegitimate. Rivers will become a hub of industrialisation.”

Soot lockdown
Ross speaks on the idea of a lockdown. Hear him: “If you lockdown Port Harcourt for one day, you are going to disrupt the logistics of the whole oil and gas sector for one day. There is a cost to lockdowns and how long can you lockdown? A lockdown is a temporary solution. It is a mitigation measure and it doesn’t solve the problem.

Large fish at Borikiri are harvested at a distance where the pollution is less (left). Fish trade in one of the coastal communities (right)

“The long term measure should be how we stop this, because the era of fossil fuels is coming to an end. We are moving to the era of renewable energy. The long term solution is to identify the Kpo fire operators, legalise and control the trade. It’s a federal responsibility. I like to look at it from a broader perspective. It’s not enough to chase them out of the market. It’s going to be very hard.”

Attempts made to speak with the immediate past Rivers State Commissioner for Health Professor Princewill Chike were not successful.

Ujorha is a Freelance Journalist

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