The City of Port Harcourt and “the hanging black cloud”

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Temilade Salami

Imagine yourself on the day of a long awaited interview, dressed in a well-ironed white and sky blue shirt on a beautiful Monday morning. Your appointment time is 10am and you had left home anxious, eager and happy at 9:00 am only to arrive at the interview centre at 9:40am to a barrage of strange questions bordering on your dressing from the gateman.

Still in wonderment at his questions and the intention behind it, you tried to turn and look and boom, there you go, you are stained or rather covered by a dust-like black fume or particle which can be likened to a strange black soot. Can you imagine the worry, the anger, the fury, the frustration and the cluelessness that you are bound to experience at that very moment? Well, that mixed emotion has been the lot of many residents of Port Harcourt, Nigeria since 2016.

The city of Port Harcourt, which is the capital of Rivers State is popularly known as The Garden City because of its green and open space with nicely-patterned houses built in well-planned layouts. However, this beautiful, serene city that once had a peaceful mien is now a pitiful cynosure of environmental pollution.

While the rest of Nigeria commemorates Christmas, there has been a literal black cloud hanging over the city. From office spaces to worship centres, from schools to fast food restaurants, from hospitals to markets, from public transport systems to even private ones, almost every living and non-living thing within the city has engaged with the strange black soot at one point or the other. People’s clothes are covered in soot, streets are covered in soot, even residents’ bedsheets are covered in soot. And records show that it has gone on for years.

“You’re wiping your face with a handkerchief and everything is black. You’re trying to clean your car and everything is black. Or you look at the soles of your feet and it is just pitch black,” said Canon, a resident and environmentalist in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. His words summarises the severity and magnitude of threat that the situation poses to public health, livelihood and the ecosystem at large.

Air pollution, as defined by World Bank, “is the presence of one or more contaminants such as dust, fumes, gas, mist, odour, smoke, or vapour in quantity, in the outdoor atmosphere which are actually or potentially injurious to human, plant or animal life, or property, or which unreasonably interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of life and property.”

The big questions remain: What causes this strange soot that has gone on for years? What is its possible impact on the health of Port Harcourt residents? How long before the government finds a lasting solution to this menace?

Soot is the byproduct of the burning of fossil fuels. This includes burning coal for electricity or industrial fuel, manufacturing, oil refining, and motor vehicles. Soot enters the environment either as a solid particle or as a gas which turns into a particle after it has been released. These particles can end up very far away from their site of origin.

Aside from common effects of air pollution which include irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, black soot has been associated with upper respiratory infections such as asthma, pneumonia, coronary artery disease, bronchitis and some other respiratory illnesses. Carbon emissions are detrimental to human health as they take part in gas exchange during each breath. The black soot particularly has a severe level of toxicity and is capable of causing cancer which may lead to premature death.

Environmentalists say the soot has been found to contain sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which cause acid rain when combined with moisture. As far back as 2018, AFP reported that doctors in Port Harcourt say they are seeing the health effects of the soot already, with an increase in consultations for breathing difficulties, including asthma. The settling of black soot on water bodies causes turbidity and also affects the health status of the water body. Experts say air pollutants can trigger an immune response in mothers, which produces antibodies that reduce the amount of folic acid that travels through their placentas to their fetuses. Lack of folic acid can lead to birth defects. In all, common reactions to soot range from watery eyes and a runny nose to a persistent cough. Individuals with existing health issues are at the greatest risk from toxic soot compounds. Compromised immune systems, respiratory problems and heart conditions can all be impacted by exposure to soot.

The cause of the soot has been something of a mystery. While some residents hold the general belief that the refineries that are operational in Port Harcourt are responsible, others have blamed the dilemma on the illegal oil activities undertaken by bunkers and vandals; abattoirs burning tyres; heating of asphalt and also the burning of stolen petroleum products by security agencies. The blame trade has left no one in exception.

In the midst of all these speculations, the question is: What has been done since it started?

While there have been citizen-led advocacy actions and even protests on and off social media, the soot pollution in Port Harcourt is still a huge environmental concern with no solution in sight despite its threat to life and livelihood.

In February 2017, the Rivers State Ministry of Environment declared the soot an “emergency situation”. In the same month, Nyesom Wike, the Governor of Rivers State, established a committee to probe the cause of the soot and suggest ways forward. The committee’s report suggested that the soot emerged as a result of the destruction of Illegal refineries by security agencies. Their findings were hinged on the narrative that the police and military identify and destroy illegal refineries in the region, with the resulting fume forming a dark cloud over the city. Based on these findings, Nyesom Wike opined that there is nothing his administration can do regarding the soot, as tackling security agencies is not within the purview of the state government!

While this environmental degradation persists, there are different measures that can be adopted for safe living before the situation is abated.

Surviving the black soot menace

● Wearing a nose mask in this period is one of the best preventive measures as it will prevent you from inhaling the contaminated air. It will also prevent the soot from getting into the nose.

● Windows and doors should be shut as often as possible in order to prevent the soot from entering homes and work spaces.

● Contact with open spaces should be reduced in order to keep your hands from touching the soot.

● Mild detergents should be used to clean surfaces daily in order to avoid the accumulation of soot. This would reduce the amount of black soot gathered around the house and offices. Air vents should also be dusted from time to time.

● The importance of washing your hands frequently, especially having been outdoors, can’t be overemphasised. While this sounds like basic advice, it is imperative to note that it reduces the possibility of inhaling or ingesting the toxic substance.

● It is advisable for residents to take showers at least three times daily. By having multiple baths daily, the soot will not last on the skin to cause injuries or hazards.

● At this period when the city is covered with the black soot, protective clothing will help many residents. Wearing long sleeve shirts and long trousers or skirts are good options pending permanent solution to the pollution.

● Consumables purchased in the open market should be thoroughly washed before use, especially fresh fruits and vegetables which can easily be contaminated.

● There is an urgent need to mount core and active awareness programmes calling people’s attention to the inherent dangers of being exposed to the soot and how best it can be avoided.

It is however important to note that these are temporary measures. The government of Rivers State must find a comprehensive solution to this menace before it spirals to a full blown environmental and health disaster.

Temilade Salami is an environmental activist and advocate, a seasoned poet and a green economy policy enthusiast.