Governor Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State, recently expressed concern over the alarming effects of environmental pollution particularly in the Niger Delta resulting in terminal ailments such as cancer. Dickson spoke in his hometown, Toru Orua, when he received scores of sympathisers, who visited to commiserate with him over the death of his mother, Mrs GoldCoast Dickson. The governor stressed that most cases of cancer in the Niger Delta are traceable to environmental degradation in the region. He promised that a cancer foundation would be instituted in memory of his later mother to principally screen people and create greater awareness on the dangers associated with the scourge, which he described “as a major health challenge almost reaching the point of an epidemic in this country, especially in the Niger Delta area”.
True, the key environmental issues in the Niger Delta relate to oil exploration in the region and dumping of toxic waste from known and unknown sources. In 2020, an environmental expert, Robin Baird, reported that between 9 million and 13 million barrels of crude oil had been spilled in the Niger Delta since 1958. The oil spills are mainly, according to reports, due to pipeline and tanker accidents (50 per cent); theft and sabotage (25 per cent); oil production operations (21 per cent); inadequate or non-functional production equipment (one per cent); and mechanical failure (17.4 per cent). Some of the spills attributed to sabotage were reportedly caused by corrosion of some of the buried pipelines. Amnesty International decoders identified 89 spills in photography published by the oil companies which did not appear to support their claim that some of the spills were caused by sabotage to escape paying compensation.
Apart from current oil spillage in the Niger Delta, a new book, Secret Science, written by ULF Schmidt, professor of modern history at the University of Kent, has revealed that four British cold war Scientific Missions spent a total of 15 months in Obanagharo, some kilometers north of the town of Warri in Delta State, dispersing and accessing the effects of large quantities of experimental G-series nerve gas weapons between 1945 to 1989. The Nazis first developed the G-series nerve agents before and during World War II.
The series include a substance like saria, which attacks the human nervous system causing loss of bodily functions and normally death. Survivors are likely to suffer long-term neurological damage and psychiatric disorders. The book published on July 9, 2015 by Oxford University press, says the advantage of the Obanagharo location was that it permitted field trials to be carried out in a tropical environment, far away from Britain or Australia. Shmidt says the extent that local people, including locally employed trial personnel, were affected by the nerve agent, is not known.
Professor Schmidt’s research notes some of the chemical weapons to include Zinc cadmium sulfide ultrafine particles which could harmfully embed in people’s lungs ; Bacilus globigii, regarded to cause food poisoning, eye Infection and even septicaemia; pasteurella pestis (now known as versia pestis), that causes plaque epidemics in the medieval past; venezuelan Equine Enceplasitis capable of causing human high fever, long term fatigue, headache and occasional death; and the G-series nerve agent.
Shmidt affirms that historians have so far been unable to find out the extent to which Niger Delta soils were contaminated or whether nearby villages and schools were affected by any of the toxic clouds that would have been blown across the countryside. “The government records I ‘ve been looking at are conspicuously silent on all this.”
Be that as it may, the health hazards created by oil exploration are covert and slow in action. The concentration of the pollutant in surface water, ground water, ambient air, plant and animal tissue with hydrocarbons have negative impact on human health and food security. Scientists have discovered that known carcinogens bio-accumulated in some food crops could lead to a reduction in the ascorbic acid content of vegetables by as much as 36 per cent and the protein content of cassava by 40 per cent in the Niger Delta. This, they say, could result in 24 per cent increase in prevalence of childhood malnutrition.
A study led by Roland Hodler, an economics professor from University of St Gallen in Switzerland and his colleague, Anna Bruederie, shows that babies born in the Niger Delta are at double risk of dying before reaching a month-old if the mother lived near the source of oil spill when conceiving. The researchers say an oil spill occurring within 10 km of a mother’s place of residence doubled neonatal mortality rates and impaired the health of her surviving children even five years after the oil spillage and before the conception of her child.
This is because “unborn” and newborn infants are most vulnerable to oil-related pollution because the infants have not yet developed basic defenses as blood-brain- barrier, which helps protect against toxic chemicals.
The study also found that “even a small dose of pollution is likely to be large in comparison to an infant’s body weight while the mother who ingests poisoned food or contaminated water is also at greater risk of maternal malnutrition and sickness, potentially increasing infant mortality rates”.
What this means is that with the on-going environmental damage in the Niger Delta, more children and adults are exposed to harmful chemicals in polluted drinking water, air and food produce. People in the affected areas complain about health issues including breathing problems, skin lesions and cancer. This is why Governor Dickson, who lost his mother to cancer recently, is raising the alarm over the extraordinary scale of oil pollution in the Niger Delta. The federal government and the multinational oil companies must provide the enabling environment to stop pollution of the region and to continuously clean up the already polluted environment.
– Ikiriko Bestman writes from Abuja
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