DR. DATONYE ALASIA, is a consultant physician in internal medicine, University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital, and also the chairman, Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Rivers State chapter. In this interview with CHUKWUDI EJIMOFOR, he discusses the health implications of the black soot that is currently ravaging the state, and makes suggestions on how to combat the menace. Excerpts
What are the health implications of the black soot menace in Port Harcourt, and its environs?
What we have is a severe air pollution problem, and this black soot episode is the high point of it. The black soot menace has been adduced to multiple factors, namely artisanal refinery – that is how artisanal refined products are destroyed through burning of diesel, crude oil, and gas flaring. So the most common health implications are the respiratory track (the lungs) – the breathing. And we know that if you have asthma for instance, inhaling the black soot particles would worsen your case. Those who have obstructive airway issues of the lungs are also the worse hit, because they face the risk of having respiratory track infection. We also noticed that black soot increases the risk of other forms of diseases of the lungs. We also know that for some people, if the black soot drops on their skins, it causes irritation of the skin. We also know that some of these compounds can lead to cancer on the long term.
What kind of cancer are we talking about?
The cancers are many, but majorly, lung cancer and other types of cancer that are associated with air pollution of this magnitude.
Do children have immunity from black soot?
No. They don’t. In fact; children are more at risk because their respiratory system is not well developed like that of the adults. Of course, you know that children usually play on the ground, and since many particles of black soot, settle on the ground, the tendency is for children to come into more contact with the black soot.
How vulnerable are the adults?
You know that in most respiratory ailments, the most vulnerable groups are those that are very young and those above 65 years of age. Aging comes with disposed tissues, and those who ages with compromised lungs and those who are under sized are expected to be worse hit.
Do we take it that the health implications of black soot are not as severe as some people would want us to believe?
I am not saying that the health implications of black soot are not severe, but you don’t expect anybody who inhales black soot to collapse and die immediately, as some people think. But we have what is called sub-acute chronic exposure. So over time, like I said, some of the effects will not even manifest now, it may be in the future, say 10 to 15 years down the line. But it is the vulnerable people that will be affected as we have said earlier – those who have asthma, the older ones, and those who have obstructive lung diseases,
Recently in Port Harcourt, members of Civil Society Organizations protested over the health effects of the black soot. What do you make out of this protest?
Yes, it is good that people are worried over the menace of black soot because the environment is important to us. But what we need to know is that the effects of the black soot take some time to manifest, and so, we must immediately take some steps to mitigate the long term effects of black soot on the people. We suggest that the environment should adequately protected, and if you think the black soot menace is so much in your area, you can wear mask in order not to inhale the particulate matter; you should cover your food properly, avoid some road side food processing and preparations that are not covered, because these black sooth must have settled on it, and will not see it, and you then buy the food and eat. Someone selling food at the road side should know that there should be proper concealment of the food, knowing that people will be eating it. Cleaning, washing of plates are inevitable features until this black sooth is checked to the point that we will no longer experience it. If you stop all the activities that cause the black soot menace, then the menace will stop, and the effects will no longer be there.
What has the NMA, Port Harcourt chapter done to be part of this campaign against the spread of black soot in the state?
Over a year ago before it got to this point, we started sensitization of the public, because it is something we took very important, to the extent we have a committee on environmental health issues. And we also held inter-sectoral meetings with other stakeholders like Association of Chemical Engineers, Nigerian Environmental Survey Groups and others to look at all the effects of black soot to the environment. We all have a role to play to protect the environment from degradation. The water we drink is polluted, you have plastics and all manner of refuse and wastes littered everywhere. Now when these wastes get into the water, they get into the food chain, the fishes feed from there, and we are going to consume those fishes. When it comes to the land side, weather plants or vegetables, some of those things are also going to be absolved into the feeding chain. We all should know that the environment is important, and we should deem it necessary to do the little things we can do. We, therefore, call on the government to take the lead in terms of adequate coming up with proper regulations, adequate enforcement. The government should not ask the people to protect the environment, yet it continues with gas flaring gas in the country.
What recommendations did the NMA make to the government on how to fight soot in the environment?
Our recommendations took into account the major contributory factors to the black soot menace. And one of them is this issue of artisanal refineries, which is known in local parlance as “Kpoo Fire,” and how it is being destroyed and all that. On that premise, there is an expectation that government should be able to know those that are responsible and take action to stop them. If you don’t have to burn the artisanal refineries, you have to find more environmentally friendly way to dispose of them.
However, the issues of why this business is thriving have never been addressed. We demand that government must address it. If we have adequate supply of genuine products, we will not create the demand for illegal and artisanal products. And government should be firm enough not to spare anybody who promotes illegal refining of crude oil, no matter how highly placed he may be. We also recommended that there must be continuous air pollution monitoring, because if we are monitoring the pollution of air, the alarm would have been raised much longer.