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Port Harcourt soot darkens skies, endangers lives

The  Oil city, also known as  garden city, has become a city of black  Soot, a place  of  poisons which hang in the atmosphere and  these are brought down to earth when it rains. Soot rises into the atmosphere from a diversity of sources, and so there will always be poisons in the air, making  it very hard  for man to mould a beautiful  enchanting city. It is a polluted city and Soot is everywhere affecting  everyone and triggering respiratory tract infections in both children and adult. Egbuson Enitan thinks that being in Port Harcourt might have triggered the Ulcer which he has been treating for many years. His words  “I have had bouts of Ulcer over the  years,and unfortunately the Ulcer came back this year. The Ulcer pains were very serious. After a while I remembered that when I  have Ulcer, I could not be in the same room with somebody who is smoking. That was when I realised that my system was reacting to the soot.” Daily Trust is told of a 48 year old male patient in a hospital  in Port Harcourt who does not smoke, has never smoked in his life ,but he has  developed chronic obstructive airway disease, a condition normally associated with smokers.On the other hand there are rising incidents of respiratory tract infections among adults in Port Harcourt. This has been confirmed at the Health Services Department, Ignatius  Ajuru University of Education, Port Harcourt. A mother had to withdraw her son from one of the University’ in the capital when he fell dangerously ill. He is now in a University in Lagos. In the city there are also cases of Asthma occurring among persons from families with no known history of the condition.

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A sudden rise

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Dr. Agnes Fienebeka, a  Consultant Paediatrician, recently did some research which established a link between the prevalence of soot and cases  of upper respiratory tract infections in children. Her words “I did a study titled Trend of Acute Respiratory Infections Among  Under 5 Children  at the Braithwaite Memorial Specialist Hospital: a Two  year review. It covered the period between March 2015 and February 2017. The study I carried out was  a total population study, involving all under 5 children that were  seen at the Braithwaite Memorial Specialist Hospital between March 2015 and February 2017.” Her words  “What is fascinating about black soot in this study, is that when I compared the prevalence of acute respiratory infection cases between the months of September and December 2015, and September and December 2016, there was a higher prevalence of acute respiratory infection  cases in the year 2016, and that was when the black soot issue came up in Port Harcourt as compared to 2015. There was an increase of prevalence of acute respiratory infection  cases among under 5 children between September and December 2016. 7.4% for September, 11.2% for October, 9.7% for November and 7.3% for  December, when compared to the same months in the year 2015, 5.2% for September, 7.8% for October, 7.6% for November and 5.7% for December. The rise in the prevalence of acute respiratory infection cases, made me suspect or think that there is a possibility that the black soot at that period may have accounted for the rise.”

 

Birth defects

Dr. Davies Onipinshaye of Living  Spice Nature Cure Hospital, Kubwa, Abuja  sheds light on the impact of soot on the developing foetus “One way or the other, in an instance where the blood of the mother is already poisoned, soot  will have a negative influence on the developing foetus in the womb. It may lead to a miscarriage, and  if the baby is given birth to, it may now affect some of its physical features, which will  be something similar to a birth defect. A very good example is the liver, if it is affected, the baby even before it becomes an adult, may develop cancer in one way or the other.”

 

We are all smokers

“On account of soot we have all been made smokers. Every health hazard a smoker will suffer, we are to suffer. But the smokers are even better, because the cigarettes have filters. So, when you smoke, most of the carbons are filtered away.But what we are going through here, is  a case of inhaling raw carbon 24 hours a day. A smoker can inhale 15  sticks a day,imagine you smoking 24 hours a day for a whole year,” says Dr. Bieye Briggs of the Ignatius Ajuru University of Education, Port Harcourt. Continuing, he says “The thing that makes this soot a problem is the size. Its 2.5 micrometers. This size makes it impossible to see it with your naked eye, except after hours of deposits on surfaces. If you swipe your hand across the surface of a table in the morning, you will see the soot,but ordinarily it’s difficult to see it with your naked eye.” He explains “There are hairs inside the nostrils that ordinarily prevent particulates in the air from going into the respiratory system.The soot is so small, and it goes right in, right to the point where gaseous exchange takes place. In the presence of carbon, red blood cells will not take oxygen,there is a greater affinity for carbon rather than oxygen. The red blood cells,whenever they see carbon, will pick carbon instead of oxygen.That is why we have a problem.”

 

Infertility, cancers

He also shed light on the impact of soot on the community  “It is small in size and before you feel its effect, it will take years. It will result in cancers,infertility, and men won’t be able to impregnate their wives anymore. There will be rising cases of chromosomal abnormalities as well. The babies will be affected and they will have congenital abnormalities and it can affect organs such as the heart, liver and the kidneys. If we stop the further emission  of the soot today, the effect will still be with us  for the next fifty to one hundred years.The effect of the one we have inhaled  will still be with us for a long time to come.”

 

Soil infertility

Dr Babatunde Bernard, of the department of Animal and Environmental Biology, University of Port Harcourt posits “There are different types of soot, and the one being experienced here now is the black soot which contains Benzo(a)pyrene  which is a carcinogen.With respect to animal and human health, it can cause cancer ,and one of the most prominent cancers that can be caused  by this is prostate cancer. If black soot covers the water surface, it can reduce light penetration, and light is needed in water just as on the land for photosynthesis. The plants require light,just as any other plant on land, to carry out the process of photosynthesis. Black soot covering the water body is enough to start causing problems for the organisms. It will cover and reduce the penetration  of sunlight ,and then  if photosynthesis does not occur, the food chain will be slow as the higher animals will not have full consumption, consequently primary productivity, secondary productivity will reduce drastically, and that can affect all the way back to us again.” According to Dr Bernard “Black soot can result in soil infertility. The black soot may contain heavy metals and heavy metals are  needed in the soil quite all right, but only within a certain range. Anything beyond that range can render the soil useless,because of certain chemical reactions within the already existing component. Apart from this, black soot has  capacity to kill microorganisms such as  earthworms which have capacity to enrich the soil, and make it fertile.Now, if the earthworms die in the numbers as a result of  black soot covering the land, automatically soil fertility will be reduced.”

“Everywhere you have soot, it has a lot of effect on people.Research has shown that women who fry beans cake easily have high blood pressure, and they tend to come down with stroke”, says Dr. D. B. Adie of the department of Water Resources and Environmental Engineering, Ahmadu Bello University Zaria. He adds “This is because of what they inhale. If you put your car on in a garage and shut the garage door,within two minutes you are dead. You hear of people who put on their  generator at night, and all of them die due to carbon monoxide  and particulate matter. Paticulate matter has a lot of environmental effects. If you park your car today in Port Harcourt, very soon its covered in soot. Animals breath in the soot, so it affects them too. They will be affected, because they are also biological entities, and they have  almost every organ which humans have. We can filter soot because of our nostrils, but they don’t have that benefit. Theirs is direct ingestion.”

 

Smoking without filters

Eugene Abel, Convener of the Stop the Soot Campaign also  sheds light on the prevalence of soot in the city “There are two levels of soot.One is of 10 microns, and the other is 2.5 microns. We are not concerned about the 10 microns because you can easily see it. We are worried about the 2.5 microns which you don’t see and which has capacity to go into your lungs.Thats  what we are worried about.Technically, what this means is that for the past 21 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.”

 

It began in 2016

Speaking in a similar vein, Ken Henshaw, Executive Director, We The People goes down memory lane “We started noticing soot in August 2016, that’s when it became obvious that we had this problem. You wake up and you see black particles on your car, your window panes, and on your clothes. We became interested and used microscopes to take a look at it. Groups started gathering,and the name soot came about. It is a kind of hydro carbon residue from an incomplete burning process. We saw that it is very poisonous, in the sense that it can cause cancer, and if it gets absorbed into the skin through the skin pores, it is also very dangerous,causing cancer of the skin.”

60 years of gas flaring

He adds “We believe that the prevalence of soot is re enforced by a combination of different air polluting substances operating at the same time in the so called oil rich Niger Delta. We  have been suffering hydro carbon pollution for many decades,from gas flaring to what happens in the  refineries,and now,for the first time,all these came together. The first source of the soot is the artisanal refineries  in the Niger Delta, and there are hundreds of these refineries scattered everywhere in the delta. The process of refining this crude oil is actually a very crude process, which actually does not take environmental concerns into consideration, and which does not have the  technology of reducing the emergence of soot, and of hydrocarbon, and that contributes  a lot in producing soot. 

There are a couple of petro chemical companies here, and the  process of doing business emits very serious black soot. Of course, there is another source, a more silent source,for us it is a more pressing, more long lasting source,and that is the gas flaring which has been going on in the Niger Delta for the last sixty years or thereabouts. While it’s very possible to extract oil without flaring gas,but you find this happening here, this very environmentally dangerous, economically wasteful practice of flaring gas, goes on unabated. It has been established that gas flaring poisons the atmosphere, and this is because soot is a hydrocarbon outcome . ”

 

Cancers common as malaria

On the health implications of exposure to soot, Henshaw says “A doctor said once that in the next couple of years, cancers and other respiratory illnesses will be as common as malaria in rivers state.I read a story about a lady whose husband was taken to a hospital in Abuja over respiratory issues,and when the doctor finished examining him, he asked are you coming from port Harcourt?, saying that they have been seeing many of these cases  from port Harcourt,and it  has got to do with soot. Thus, a pattern is therefore being established. We don’t even know the impact soot will have on unborn babies. The problem is devastating. We eat it,breath it, drink it. It falls on the land and it seeps into the earth, and it falls on our food products, vegetable leaves and all that. We consume hydrocarbons on a daily basis, and nobody in government has taken time to examine the implications of this thing which people have been consuming, and the problem of soot compounds an already precarious Niger Delta problem, which is that of water and soil pollution, which led to the establishment of the clean-up effort in Ogoniland .” He adds “I am sure you will find abnormal births, far more in this region than in other regions,because the evidence is clear. You cannot keep consuming this level of poison without expecting it to have an impact on your body. Its  simply not possible. Worse things will happen, if we don’t address this problem.”

 

Soot & Sterility

Dr. Briggs draws attention to the link between soot and sterility “There is a link between soot and sterility. There was a study that was done in the USA, where many chimney sweeps developed scrotal  cancer. The scrotum houses the testes,and anything that affects the scrotum affects the  testes.It led to sterility because as they sweep the chimney area,soot and the accompanying dust, they inhale it, and over the years they developed  scrotal cancer that led to sterility. When that fact was established they needed to take steps  to ensure  that those who do such work, do not suffer the same thing. They began to issue them with  face masks and specialised trousers,to protect the scrotum from becoming cancerous, owing to excessive exposure to soot and carbon. Whether  or not such a research has been carried out in Nigeria, or in Port Harcourt, is yet to be known as at now to confirm that association. But elsewhere it has been done and that’s why I am linking it, and studies have been done in USA, China and Germany.” Google reveals that in the 18th century a scrotal cancer of chimney sweepers, the chimney sweeps’ carcinoma, was already known to be connected to soot.

In Port Harcourt today everyone notices a slow darkening of surfaces or corners. It took a while for the truth to dawn, and many houseboys lost work because their employers thought they were simply being lazy and could not keep the house clean. Many have stopped jogging in the morning, for fear of inhaling the substance, and   families  keep the windows shut just  as there is a sudden rise in respiratory infections among all ages and classes. You are on a visit  to   Port Harcourt  , and  you   check  for Soot in your hotel room. The edges of the ceiling fan  reveal  the black outline all over its sides and this is not the regular dust. Spider webs which the housekeepers broom could not reach, betray the presence of soot in  rich black. The windows also present evidence of  soot, and the bathroom  too.The slow darkening of the toilet cover and the bath mean that the housekeepers are having a running battle with soot and clearly losing.Be a little patient and bring out your white handkerchief the next morning. You wipe the table in the room, and you find that the handkerchief  is turning black, and yet this is one of the best hotels in GRA Phase 3 part of the city. It lies within a gated section of the area and  comes highly recommended.

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