From when it first appeared in Rivers State in 2016, residents of Port Harcourt have continued to inhale poisonous soot two years after, with severe risks to infants and the elderly. ANAYO ONUKWUGHA (Port Harcourt) reports on its impact on the population of the state.
Although, the word, “soot” sounds simple and harmless, it includes the fine black particles, chiefly composed of carbon, produced by incomplete combustion of coal, oil, wood, or other fuels.
Soot can consist of acids, chemicals, metals, soils, and dust. In fact, soot is anything but simple and is certainly not harmless.
Soot first appeared in the atmosphere in and around Rivers State in September 2016, causing panic among residents of the state.
To Dr Omosivie Maduka, a consultant Public Health Physician at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital (UPTH), the common trait of soot particles is that they are extremely tiny– 2.5 micrometers or smaller in diameter.
Maduka, who stated that it is smaller than dust and mold, and is about 1/30 the diameter of a human hair, said everybody irrespective of age, sex and social status are affected by soot and other types of air pollution.
She further stated that children less than five years and the elderly, above 65 years are mostly affected by the negative health effects of soot and other types of air pollution.
The consultant public physician said, “Everyone irrespective of age, sex and social status are affected by soot. Children less than five years and the elderly, above 65 years are however mostly affected by the negative health effects of soot and other types of air pollution.
“This is because body defences are underdeveloped in young children and are weakened by age in the elderly. Persons with existing health challenges such as respiratory, allergic and cardiovascular diseases are also at risk of worsening health conditions with exposure to soot and other types of air pollution.
However, several medical experts believe that majority of the soot ravaging the atmosphere in Rivers State for the past two years emit from illegal refining sites scattered across the rivers and creeks in the state as well as from the destruction of such sites by security agencies that are out to stop illegal refining of petroleum products.
According to Dr Furo Green, a medical expert, about six million residents of Rivers State face the risk of developing cancer of the lung and other respiratory problems, following the never-ending raining of cancerous hydrocarbon elements, commonly referred to as black soot on their environment.
Green, who is a specialist and consultant surgeon at the Braithwaite Memorial Specialist Hospital, Port Harcourt, decried the impact of the black soot and called on the federal government to monitor the activities of multinational companies that are into hydrocarbon processing.
He said, “We all suddenly noticed an increase in discharge of black powdery matter in the environment, which the Ministry of Environment has narrowed to hydrocarbon.
“The implication of inhaling these hydrocarbon particles is that it can lead to acute inflammation of the airways, which can precipitate to hyper stimulation of the airway and actually precipitate asthmatic attack in individuals, who are predisposed to asthma.
“And over a long period of time it can precipitate chronic obstruction of the airways, which we refer to as chronic bronchitis. So when this condition goes on for a long time, it results to chronic respiratory conditions that can end up as malignancy or even kill the individual.
“The figure of people affected by this might even be larger than six million because other neighbouring states are also experiencing the soot, and even recently parts of Lagos State have been reported to also experience it.
“Hydrocarbons after prolong exposure can predispose to cancer, especially of the lung, because that is the area where it is settled, but there are other long lasting conditions that may arise from hydrocarbon poison, such as infertility.
“But in children, the effect can be unpredictable, a child that is very normal now could actually develop an acute respiratory problem, meaning that a child, who has never had asthma, can actually precipitate to one, and if care is not taken the child could die from asphyxia. So the effects of these particles are more pronounced in children right now, but over a period of time, it will lead to lung condition.
“Wash your hands as often as possible because even where you wash your hands, you will see that the lather of the soap itself is black. Children should be protected, close your windows, wash your fruits and cover your food to reduce the loads of these hydrocarbons.
“Also, clean your floor and furniture with moist towels to reduce the accumulation of the soot; and when you are exposed outside, wear a nose-mask or cover your nose with handkerchief to minimize the volume that is inhaled.”
Another medical expert, Dr Ochele Emmanuel, said, “The government should do everything possible to ensure that our society is clean, they can do that by ensuring that illegal refineries, the petroleum industries, where there is gas flaring and where there is release of effluent into the atmosphere is reduced to the minimum even the automobile and artisans, who burn tires often.
“We know that it will have a cumulative effect one day. Among them for now, people will begin to develop respiratory problem, skin irritation. The government needs to intervene and the citizens should be educated.”
Recently, residents of Rivers State signed a 250-paged petition to the United Nations (UN) alerting the world body of the refusal of the Nigerian government to act on the seeming death sentence passed on them by the soot.
The petition was signed in Port Harcourt during a one-day anti-soot summit organised by Stop-the-Soot Campaign and We-the-People, two nongovernmental organizations leading the campaign for an end to soot in the state, to mark second year of the menace of the poisonous emission.
Speaking at the event, convener of Stop-the-Soot Campaign, Eugene Abels, said the decision to sign the petition followed the refusal of UN to respond to the previous petition sent to the organization more than one month ago.
Abels said, “For best practice, when you receive a letter, you acknowledge it. How can United Nations, over a month not to acknowledge letters sent to them? Or the World Health Organization?
“It bothers on the realm of irresponsibility for such an international organisation funded by international funds not respond to save people’s lives.
“The Rivers State government has started it. Last week, we also attended a summit on environment. They are collaborating with the Nigerian Medical Association.
“The laws on environment are federal in nature, regulators are federal in nature, the security agencies are federal in nature. The federal government is supposed to lead the task and they have been grossly irresponsible.
“The people we pay salaries to, which include the President, the Vice President and the security agencies should do their job and stop the stealing of petroleum products. Once it is stopped, there will be no artisan refineries, there will be no soot.
“We are signing the petition to tell the United Nations to respond to what we have raised. They are here in Port Harcourt; they must respond to it. If they fail to respond, we are going to New York.”
Also speaking, leader of We-the-People, Ken Henshaw, said the anti-soot summit, which had the theme: “Rise for Climate: Stop the Soot” said the group is disappointed at the attitude of the Nigerian government towards eradicating soot in the state.
Henshaw said, “This event is to call for global attention to climate change. We cannot discuss climate change and fossil fuel on Rivers State without talking about Soot. We feel terribly disappointed that government at local, state and federal levels have deliberately refused to act on this issue.
“No reasonable government will allow its people breath poisonous cancer causing hydrocarbon soot for 24 months without any action being taken. It is unfair and it is safe to say that every indigene and resident of Rivers State is on death row.
“For 2 years, the over 5 million people in Rivers state have been condemned to slow death by hydrocarbon poisoning. No reasonable government folds its hands and watches that happen to its people, but this is exactly what our government is doing, they are trading blame while people are dying.
“Our call today is for anyone and everyone that cares to listen, in Nigeria and internationally; people are being poisoned, 5 millions of us.”
To Reverend Nnimmo Bassey, executive director of Home of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), the soot is the manifestation of insidious atrocities that have gone on unchallenged in the environment.
Bassey said, “We applaud our brothers and sisters that have championed and continue to champion the Stop-the-Soot campaign. This is one campaign that has been backed by research, competence and high-level articulation of the health and debilitating impact of soot, or black carbons, that citizens have been condemned to breathe.
“The petition that has been raised on this matter should be endorsed by all citizens of Nigeria, not just residents of the Niger Delta who breathe this toxic air.
“The soot is the manifestation of insidious atrocities that have gone on unchallenged in our environment. It is one that cannot be swept under the carpet. Out creeks have been dastardly polluted, indeed coated by crude oil and we have silently continued to drink the polluted water.
“Our lands have been heavily contaminated, our crops have wilted, rotted and we have gone home empty handed at harvest time, yet we eat our rotted tubers and continue to fall into the grip of disease.”