Black Soot: Any Way Out?

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The persistent black soot being noticed in Port Harcourt and its environs, has become a huge concern to residents of the city.
Our Deputy Editor (Features), Calista Ezeaku spoke with environmental, health experts and other members of the public on the probable causes of the air pollution and the way out. Our photographer, Dele Obinna captured their images.

Sir (Dr) Patrick Chinemerm, environmental expert
Though the true cause is not yet identified but we can say with certainty that we have an air pollution problem. This means that there is an urgency and in fact an emergency to ascertain the status of our “ambient air quality”.
The real cause of the observed soot in our lower atmosphere can only be determined through a scientific or empirical process. This means that as a matter of urgency, we need the Government to set up a scientific commission for research and fact finding. This commission should be given a target to investigate and confirm the actual cause within a set time frame. This also means that the concerned regulatory agencies backed up by government should constitute a team of environmental scientists consisting of environmental chemists and meteorologists to monitor and report on this concern. A lot of speculations could be made regarding the probable cause. However,  my assumption as an expert in environment is that the present air pollution incident from perceived soot like material may be an out come of an industrial process. This means that it could be that a particular yet to be identified industry may have been emitting substances into our air for some time and now the emission load or the concentration of what was emitted may have exceeded what the air can carry or neutralise by natural wind dispersal process, hence, we are now beginning to observe and see them. So I can suspect industrial pollution. Other probable causes are gas flaring, emissions coming from discrete sources such as the several unregulated local/indigenous crude oil refining point and a lot of other carbon emitting human activities. It may have also migrated from distances far away from the city. That is to say that the source may even be outside from our immediate vicinity. Let us recall the Canada Vs. United States Trail smelter incident of the 1970’’s and the Indian Bhopal incident. Our air and atmosphere really does not know or respect boundaries. So a lot of meteorology and air quality sampling and environmental chemistry is required here to identify the real cause. I call on our good government to constitute a scientific investigation team. I suppose that is what the “Task Force” constituted during the week is set to do.
Mr Edwin Manu, safety professional
I can’t really say what are the causes of the soot. What l do know is that we have been made to understand that professionals are looking into it to determine the actual source though there are speculations it may be as a result of hydrocarbon and all of that. Once the source is known, it is for government to wade in. If it is from companies or our own activities, it is for government to wade in and put pressure on the source. Then measures should be put in place to make sure those who are culpable for this kind of situation put a stop to it Recently a committee was constituted to look into it.  People in authority need to be proactive . What they are taking now is reactionary measure. Ordinarily, they ought have monitored our environment. They should have a department  in the ministry of environment that should be monitoring our environment and before this kind of thing happens they should be able to know and put in measures to ensure that it doesn’t escalate the way it did this time.

Miss Gift Adima, student
I have noticed the black carbon and l think the government should know what to do about it so that it does not cause illnesses and death in the state.

Dr Promise Jaja,  President, Association of Resident Doctors, BMSH
There are speculations on what could be the cause of the soot. Many people have different views. Some may think it is the work of oil companies(legal and illegal ), flaring of gases. Some may also think it may be from destruction of illegally refined petroleum products. We have been rightly informed that there are investigations going on by the state ministry of environment to ascertain the exact cause. What we know for sure is that there are particulate matter in the atmosphere particularly Port Harcourt and it’s environs. Now the problem with such issues is not the short term exposure. Chronic exposure to this that may lead to irritable airway . You may find that many of our children will have a lot of airway disorder, upper respiratory track infections, a lot of fluid coming out from their nostrils. These are just immediate effects. Now there are long term effects when this particulate matters get to sediment in our lungs, in our lower respiratory tracks . And we are afraid of the risks of inflammatory conditions of our lungs and distance long term compilation of possible cancers – cancers of the lungs, airways and the rest. Now we will be very glad if our government and all relevant environmental agencies will conclude their investigations on time that will help us generally in knowing what it is and curbing the source. We need the source exactly to be curbed so that Rivers People can live a healthy life.
What I advise is that we try to put in some measures within this period to improve our health. We should try and limit the quantity of the external air that comes in or how much of the external air that comes in stays in. You may want to seal your windows. It may benefit you by using good cross ventilation so that air coming in goes out. I cannot subject everybody to wearing nose mask because some people may wear the mask wrongly, some may even directly inhale some of this dust if the masks are poorly used.  For me. The main thing is to stop whatever is causing it. Government and other stake holders should ensure that before projects interventions are taken, proper environmental health impact assessments are taken so that we know whether this good we are doing will not offer us some bad. All we need to know is that a short term exposure is not as serious as a chronic exposure . For a short term exposure , the body system is already built to mop up. What we are afraid of is allowing this to exit for months or years unending. That’ s when we have to be very worried about it.

Mr  Alaso Jack,  Lecturer,  RSUST
The air pollution started long ago. It could be as a result of gas flaring which has never been abated. Secondly, these youths who have taken to fending for themselves by refining crude in the various localities. A lot of soot could be going into the atmosphere in that direction.When things happen like that, you may see the soot washed down by the rain or it will get attached to percolate and come down especially within the morning hours. Be that as it may, it is causing quite a lot of health hazards. When you take in this soot for instance and it gets into your trachea, then it gets into your alveoli, you either swallow the cough and all the things associated with it goes into your blood stream. Even if it settles on your body, the body can absorb it if only it is an organic compound. And lead and calcium have been very offensive in our system. So right now one cannot ascertain whether this heavy metals are n the soot. But some students are working on that. I cannot preempt what is going to be the result. All we know is that carbon soot is becoming a problem to all of us. The environment can only sustain and be good to us and support our health if only we don’t offend it. It has long endured this battery. So it is throwing back to us.
The question now is, is the Ministry of Environment up to its function ? Are the officials working? If they are working, there should be people that have gone deep into this studies that should come around and talk and give ideas. You see, the people in Abuja are just interested in the money they get from here. They are not interested in the health of the people. Is gas flaring still on? If it is, why is it not stopped till now? Why is the National Assembly sleeping over it? So, the Ministry of Environment should live up to expectation. Secondly, we should tell the people that are into local kerosene production to stop it.

Prof Roseline Konya,  Commissioner for Environment
Government has not been quiet about the black soot problem. I recall that on December 8 last year, we put out a press release asking everybody to calm down that we were doing something about it. The message was not just that we were doing something. We actually had started doing something when the message came out. Some experts were invited and we discussed it in the ministry. We even had stake holders meeting of all IOCs and they all came and we talked about it very seriously. And we said to them if there is any of  you embarking on any activity that is causing this problem, please desist from it. After that, experiment has been done by experts and we found out that the soot is petroleum based. Meaning that it is a result of incomplete combustion of hydrocarbon and any organization that has anything to do with hydrocarbon, petroleum is a suspect. The Federal Government announced some years ago that  gas flaring will be stopped by 2008. But what we found out was that that target date kept shifting and up till date, they are still flaring. So the carbon monoxide and all the gas that shouldn’t be in the air are continuously in the air.
Having gotten these results, the next step we are taking is what is called climatology/emission modeling. It only means that we are going to take the wind direction and other parameters using the meteorological centers and in Port Harcourt we have three. One in UST, one in the Niger Delta Basin Authority, one in Uniport. With that we can pin point where the emission is coming from. For now we have some experts that can do these things. Now a task force has been formed to continue the work the ministry of environment started. Let me tell you something, you cannot stop the soot except the sources of the soot are eradicated and that was the statement l made on the 8th of December, that we cannot clean the air. So what we are doing is to find out the source and then eradicate the problem from the source. As a ministry we have consistently worked on it. I think there is a problem and everybody should be concerned about it.  Those involved in these nefarious activities should stop it. Everybody should cooperate with the government right now. And l know that State Government is taking it very seriously.