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Soot may be killing us gradually – Port Harcourt residents

Soot may be killing us gradually – Port Harcourt residents

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CHUKWUDI AKASIKE captures the mood of Port Harcourt residents who now live in perpetual fear because of their exposure to polluted carbon particles known as soot

No resident of Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, can feign ignorance of the emission and spread of a black substance in the city, known as soot, which has refused to go away. Experts, including medical doctors, have continued to raise the alarm on how dangerous the constant discharge of such tiny materials is in Port Harcourt and its environs.

Online sources noted that soot is a mass of impure carbon particles resulting from the incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons.

Most residents of the city have expressed fears for their lives having heard about the dangers of the contaminated carbon particles. Some of them, who spoke with SUNDAY PUNCH, expressed dissatisfaction with the blame game between the federal and state governments. Though experts accused those involved in illegal bunkering of being responsible for the health hazard, there has not been enough commitment toward stopping oil thieves, who boil crude oil inside the creeks, from stopping their illegal attempts to refine the stolen crude.

A carpenter, identified only as Onyeukwu, said he once resided close to where some young men gathered at night to boil crude oil, which they got after vandalising pipelines.

He stated, “They boil crude oil in the bush in the night or early hours of the morning to get kerosene, diesel, and petrol. Anytime they start their illicit work, we wouldn’t be able to sleep. The activity occurs somewhere after Iwofe. I had to pack out from that place because of the heavy pollution within the area.

“Some of those involved in this act are known to the community members, but everybody is afraid to confront them because they are deadly. I packed out from there because I was afraid that we may all die of the pollution as a result of the boiling of crude oil, which they also call kpo fire. We may be dying slowly without knowing it.”

Also, a businessman, Mr. Tony Ezeji, who lives in Igwurita in the Obio/Akpor Local Government Area, expressed anxiety over the spread of the hazardous particles, adding that he felt unsafe always seeing soot on a car or any other place.

Ezeji added, “I am afraid for my life. I have seen the soot with my eyes. I stay at Igwurita and other residents of the area are also aware of the soot in the place. I don’t think the cause is the illegal bunkering. I am saying this because we don’t have illegal oil bunkering in that area. The government is supposed to do something so that it can save our lives.

“This soot is another form of environmental hazard. Though I have not seen any person who has been affected by the pollution, I am told that inhaling the black substance is not good for our health.

“When your car is parked outside overnight, you will see the black substance on your car the next day.”

Ezeji is not alone in this state of fear as a Port Harcourt-based journalist, Okafor Ofiebor, also said he was scared due to the spread of soot in the state capital with no solution in sight. He particularly decried the buck-passing regarding the environmental hazard facing residents of the city.

“I am scared of the soot in Port Harcourt. Based on what the doctors have been saying about it, even when your body system can filter dust, it cannot filter soot because of how small the particles are. We know that the soot has dangerous chemicals like benzene and others.

“I am scared because the lungs are affected; children and pregnant women are also vulnerable. We hear that it is also very cancerous.

“As usual in our society, nobody wants to take responsibility. One of the reasons why you took an oath is to preserve lives and property and not just to collect taxes alone. Protection of lives does not only concern violence, environmental disaster is also part of it.

“The level of pollution in Port Harcourt is higher than what the WHO can ever imagine; and this has nothing to do with whether you are poor or rich, or whether you are in government or out of government. As long as you are in Port Harcourt, you are exposed to inhaling the dangerous soot. Those causing this emission are not spirits; they are known. Why is it that there is no political will to stop them?”

On why residents affected by the soot are reluctant to visit the hospitals for check-up, a rights activist, Chinwi Ate, told SUNDAY PUNCH that economic realities on the ground did support prioritising routine check-up in Nigeria. He argued that people were currently facing challenges of paying house rents and feeding, maintaining that adding routine check-up to their lean budgets was economically unrealistic.

Ate stated, “I must be very realistic; we are Africans. No matter how highly intelligent we may be, we really have not attained that height where we go for routine check-up. It is when you break down or you are ill beyond what you can manage that you go to the hospital. When we have yet to address the basic human needs as Nigerians, is it routine medical check-up that we would be able to embrace?”

On whether he was frightened by the prevalence of the black substance in the air, he said, “I am way more than afraid. When you talk about carbon emission, I have always discovered that soot is even worse than carbon emission. The particles are always tiny and the hairs in your nose cannot even filter them the way they filter dust. This is what we inhale from Monday through Sunday and 365 days in a year.

“The government at all levels should share the blame. We know some of the people cooking crude oil (illegal bunkering), but we find it very difficult to speak out. The government also knows them. Those involved in this pay commission to certain agencies. But we are talking about lives. We don’t want this to get to a point where people would die suddenly because of soot in Port Harcourt and its environs.”

An expert in Public Health, Dr. Tony Anaweokhai, told our correspondent that soot could be carcinogenic (likely to cause cancer) to those exposed to it, adding that the most frightening aspect of it was the challenge of delayed effects.

“Someone in Port Harcourt, who has been exposed to it, could begin to have the adverse effect long after the person has left Port Harcourt. We have all been slowly poisoned through the soot.

“We have noticed patients with a lot of respiratory difficulties, but we cannot pin them down to soot,” he added.

Giving a fresh hope to the long suffering residents, the Director-General and Chief Executive Officer of the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, Peter Idabor, assured the people that the issue would be tackled with the determination it required.

He, however, pointed out that the dangerous black substance came into Rivers State as a result of the activities of human beings.

Idabor noted, “The kpor fire people don’t engage in illegal refining in the day time; they work in the night. Abattoirs are other points that cause soot. Our law enforcement agencies have good intention; they have been given a mandate to stop illegal oil bunkering.

“One of them told me they don’t know what to do with the seized crude and illegally refined oil. We met and agreed that there would be no more setting the products on fire.”

He added that the Federal Ministry of Environment would soon invite the Rivers State Government and other stakeholders to an emergency meeting with a view to charting the way forward on how to end the menace. Idabor also expressed the need for residents of Port Harcourt and its environs to use nose masks to protect themselves from inhaling the soot that has taken over the atmosphere.

While illegally-refined petrol and kerosene flood the market, many are of the view that oil thieves would not stop their illicit business if dealers in petroleum products don’t shun the products of oil thieves who pollute the environment for selfish gains.

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