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Port Harcourt: Is there a link between respiratory tract infections and soot?

Port Harcourt’s skies are dark, and when it rains the waters are black. Soot enters every home, darkening all it falls on, even with the…

Port Harcourt’s skies are dark, and when it rains the waters are black. Soot enters every home, darkening all it falls on, even with the windows shut. Kpo fire, a reference to illegal refining of petroleum products, creates soot in large quantities and scenes of an apocalyptic nature. An individual with no family history of asthma suddenly becomes asthmatic. A suckling with blocked nostrils breathes through its mouth. This investigation, supported by the Rotary Club of Port Harcourt, Eco, explores the crippling impact of black carbon on human health and the environment. 

“Vierra my five-month old child has been having recurrent upper respiratory tract infections. At a point her nostrils were blocked and she could not breathe. She was breathing through her mouth,” says Dr. Bieye Briggs, a Senior Health Officer at the Ignatius Ajuru University of Education. His voice rises and falls as he navigates equal amounts of pain and shock.

Black discharge

Dr. Briggs continues, “She lost weight in less than a month of falling ill. In the mornings black substances issue from her nostrils, and we use wet balls of cotton wool to clean them. My daughter is now breathing well. You can still hear the noise from her breathing, which is absolutely abnormal.” 

He reasons that soot – product of an incomplete burning process – inhaled in the city today contributes to the recurrent cases of upper respiratory tract infections which are already widespread, affecting all ages and classes.

Carbon in the air

A taxi driver grumbles, “When rain falls, the water is black because of carbon in the air. We inhale it and many have developed breathing problems and they cough as well. If you park your taxi overnight, before daybreak the windscreen is black. When you wash the car, the water is black. Soot is not good for those treating asthma.”

Soot emerges from the numerous illegal refineries. Ross Amabo George, a member of the Rotary Club of Port Harcourt, Eco, comments, “The origin of soot has to do with the artisanal refining of petroleum products. We call it kpo fire. The operators have their farms located in various areas close to petroleum facilities where they can puncture oil wells, or they buy oil products at cheap prices, and they begin to refine them. The only difference between the refining process of the kpo fire operators and NNPC is the control, in the sense that these boys refine their products in an uncontrolled environment. The refineries produce in a controlled environment.” 

A scene in Borikiri


Asthma unresponsive to treatment

Dr. Briggs, a public health physician and environmental advocate, has a two-year-old son who is also being treated for upper respiratory tract infections. Serapis-Bey Briggs missed school for two weeks in October this year. The medical doctor refers to a colleague’s mother who had to be rushed to the facility recently. Hear him: “She was born asthmatic, but in recent times, the frequency of attacks has increased and it is now unresponsive to conventional treatment that would have otherwise arrested the attacks.” 

‘It’s spreading’

Emem Okon, Charter President of Rotary Club of Port, Harcourt Eco, comments, “I learnt that people that live in a polluted environment are more vulnerable to COVID-19 infections, which means all of us here are vulnerable, especially the elderly. Something needs to be done. We have tried to survive with it for the past five years, but how much longer can we hold on? How much longer can people who live in areas with high concentrations of soot survive? It’s spreading because people in Akwa Ibom and Bayelsa are complaining.” 

Rivers State took the lead recently by logging 188 new infections at about mid-December. Rivers is regarded as the third “most hit state” by COVID-19.

WHO standard

“The WHO standard for particulate matter is ten grammes per mmg. Any city that goes above that recommended figure is abnormal. For five years we generated data, the average in Port Harcourt was around 43 mm, and that is extreme. That is very dangerous as against the 10 mm WHO standard,” adds Dr. Perry Tammi who holds a PhD in Environmental Studies, and is part of an emerging group of scholars who have done investigation on soot. 

He lives in Borikiri, a part of Port Harcourt where sale of illegally refined products is an everyday activity, especially around the jetty. There the waters are black and shiny. The kpo fire refining sites flourish not too far from Borikiri, and a fair number have been abandoned. 

Air quality in Port Harcourt was put at 156 for Tuesday, December 28, 2021, on iqair.com, a reference to air quality experts who provide real time, evidence–based, air quality information. The service is given free to the public. The interpretation indicates that the PM 2.5 in Port Harcourt is currently 12.9 times above the WHO annual air quality guideline value. When air quality reaches 151-200, it is considered unhealthy, indicates the website.


No history of asthma

Nengi Amakiri is 16 years old and lives in Woji, a part of the city heavily impacted by soot. Smoke from kpo fire sites are conveyed by winds into Woji, and locals sense the smoke every day. The area plays host to a series of narrow winding roads which may be flooded during the rainy season. Her story is a remarkable one. She has been diagnosed with pre-asthma, and hails from a family which does not have a history of asthma. Nengi fainted twice in October. If she enters a stuffy room, her eyes turn red and she becomes weak. The doctor diagnosed pre-asthma and advised that she should always go out with a face mask, keep indoors and that she should avoid smoke-filled places. 

Soot in excess

According to Mrs. Joy Amakiri, “There is no history of asthma in the family. In the presence of the doctor I called my sister in-law, as well as my elder sister, and asked. Both said nobody on both sides has ever had asthma.” 

She continues, “Soot is normal here. Everybody knows it is here in excess. When you go outside sometimes you recognise that smoke is in the air. I was asking the doctor if we should get her an inhaler. The doctor replied that she is under observation, and therefore there is no need for an inhaler for now. He repeated that we should not allow her to go out and play, especially when the weather is hot.” 

‘Recurring infections’

“Between 2016 and now, available  statistics have shown that the level of respiratory tract infections have risen to about 25 per cent compared to what it used to be, from patients coming to us for clinical evaluation and those sent to us for radiologic diagnosis, says Dr Ebby Donaldson, a consultant radiologist, Rivers State University Teaching Hospital. 

X-rays have doubled

Dr. Donaldson presents some disturbing statistics, “I cannot be specific with the data relating to children, but it is increasing significantly. If we look at the number of X-rays we do for respiratory tract infections to evaluate children, it has almost doubled. The issue is not only that it has doubled, there is recurrent infection. When you treat over a while, in the next two weeks the child is coming down with respiratory tract infections. You treat the child and in the next two to four weeks, the same patient or child is coming back for the same evaluation. It is a continual thing because of the continual inhalation of organic air pollutant.”

‘10 patients every day’

Dr. Briggs gives statistics relating to the number of persons presenting with respiratory illnesses, “There is barely a day that passes by when I consult in my consulting room that I would not see ten patients out of twenty, that are coming down with upper respiratory tract infections. This has been going on from my observations from the year 2017, and that coincides with the time when soot became manifest in our atmosphere.” This provides a population of at least two hundred (200) persons with respiratory tract infections presenting every month at the same facility.

‘I live in soot’

“I live right in the middle of the Soot; the area where the refining is done is close to where I live. I live in Borikiri,” says Tonye Nria-Dappa, a journalist who works in the city. We drive through Borikiri and note the many houses and roof tops which have become dark owing to the sustained impact of Soot. In a part of the community the sale of illegally refined products continues. Many move about which jerry cans. There is a lot of noise and activity, and the roads have a certain blackness and shine to them, evidence of the illegal trade. Your nostrils inhale the smell of petroleum products. 

My daughter began to snore

Nria-Dappa describes the atmosphere in Borikiri “The area will be dark as though it is going to rain, but it will not rain. By the next morning, as you come out you will find on every object that you have, there is this black dust. Whether you close your windows or not it will always find a way into an enclosure. You will find black dust on everything, even food if you leave it uncovered as well as on water. There is no day that we have respite, whether it is raining, or it is not raining. Nobody is spared. Whether you are a child or an adult, as long as you can inhale air into your system, you are bound to be affected by it.” She refers to her daughter who is still in primary school who began to snore recently. She thinks that this is strange. Attempts by this reporter to interview the Rivers State Commissioner for Health were unsuccessful.

Bakana island

“Bakana is an island and at a point we used to witness an influx of visitors every weekend. This was before the advent of soot. Soot has scared away many people. Many do not come to the town again. When the elite come home, they spend a lot and this helps to boost the economy,” explains Fayama Yellowe, who hails from the island.  From time to time the weather around the island turns dark, but it’s not the type of darkness which comes before rain. It’s the soot announcing its presence. 

Speaking on the economy, he reasons “Our people go to the swamp to pick periwinkles and other fishes. But because of the crude that has taken over the water bodies, you cannot find fish. If you put all these together, you can imagine the kind of poverty, and the economic downturn which the Soot has brought to us.”

Soot fights Fyneface

“I am having a daily fight against soot in my house, and soot is fighting back because I campaign against it” says Fyneface Dumnamene Fyneface, an Environmental Activist and Human Rights defender, with a hint of a smile on his face. He continues “In my house because I have tiles on the floor, I don’t wear slippers or any form of footwear. As I walk around the house, my feet are already dirty with thick black substances. When I touch something which I haven’t touched or handled for two or three days, there will be soot on it. Despite the existence of mosquito nets, it still penetrates the house.”

‘D Line very bad ’

“When you leave the house and you look into the sky, you will see the soot in the form of dark clouds. You will think it is going to rain, but it won’t. That is soot. If you are in a vehicle in Port Harcourt and you do not use the air conditioning system, and your windows are always open, you will be inhaling poison. In your office you encounter soot every day. The D Line area of port Harcourt is one of the worst areas, compared to what is happening in other parts of the city,” he says. 

D Line was the setting for a huge fire which broke out in late November. It is believed that illegally refined products were stored in the building that caught fire. Another fire broke out at Nembe jetty,  as well as another at an illegal oil dumpsite in Rumuokoro axis of Obio/Akpor local government area. All these resulted in loss of properties, and have become additional sources for the emission of soot in the city. kpo fire products are cheaper than those available from other sources, and therefore constitute a huge trading activity among the people.

Dark skies above Bakana Island


‘Irreversible damage’

Professor Babatunde Bernard who served on the committee set up by the rivers state government to investigate the sources of soot, sheds light on its impact on aquatic life. His words: “There are many behavioural changes or even reproductive changes that will happen to both male and female. Some of the substances in Soot have the capacity to interfere and feminise eggs. The female lays a thousand eggs and all of them turn out to be feminine or masculine. All the siblings that hatch out, all of them turn out to be male. Where will they find a female to lay the next eggs? They can actually go to the gene level and alter some things there, and the organism is not able to reproduce.” 

‘There is a link’

Dr. Dantoye Alasia is a consultant physician and respiratologist: “Yes, there is a link, an obvious and established link between soot and the rise of respiratory infections in Port Harcourt. Talking about soot kind of narrows it down. What we are dealing with is air pollution, and when there is air pollution, there are a lot of things that go into the air, things that shouldn’t be there naturally. The real problem is the degree of air pollution, and how poor our air quality is. Finding soot is part of the evidence that we have a massive air pollution issue. Across the world it is known that air pollution is a major contributor to respiratory diseases and death.” 

The respiratologist who is also Head Respiratory and Infectious Diseseas Unit, University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital (UPTH) argues “In areas where air pollution and air quality is poor, definitely those risks for lung disease and respiratory disease will be higher. We look at the pattern of respiratory presentation, and we found that there was a peak and that peak coincides with the period of the public visibility of this soot. Air pollution builds over time, gets worse and then reaches those critical levels when it becomes obvious.”

Sandra’s story

Sandra Hart (25) is asthmatic. She lives in Iwofe, a part of Port Harcourt which is frequently bathed in soot. She has observed that there is less soot in Bori where her parents live. At Iwofe she has experienced are more frequent and troubling asthma attacks. 

Her words: “I have been having a series of attacks in the past three months. When I wake up in the morning we don’t open the windows. Even with that the house is always black. We mop the house every morning and night. As someone who is asthmatic, I need air, fresh air, and air is already polluted. I need to receive fresh air, whether its fresh air or it’s not. If I have an attack I need to have the aminophylline injection. You need fresh air thereafter, but because the air is not fresh, it’s as though the injection is not working.” Asthmatics naturally have huge difficulties healing in an environment which itself lacks fresh air.

Data from X rays

Dr. Donaldson adds that chest X rays are on the rise. Hear him: “I cannot be very specific with the number, but I want to say that out of every ten persons presenting at the radiology department, six have come to do the chest X-ray. Out of the six four relate to respiratory tract infections. This occurs on a daily basis from 2019 till now.’ He draws attention to the fact that non-smokers are coming down with chest infections because of the passive inhalation of toxic organic substances. The radiologist adds that soot and organic substances are destroying the lungs of people, and that there is a slight rise in the numbers of individuals coming down with lung cancer.                                                                                                                           

Renewable energy

On the way forward Mr. Fyneface states, “The federal government should commit to their promise of giving licences for modular refineries. I am not saying that a modular refinery is not going to contribute to the soot, but it will be less compared to what is currently happening. We should begin to bring in policies that will make us move away from hydrocarbons to clean and renewable energy. That’s another way we can go. In addition all the agencies of government such as NESREA and NOSDRA must take the regulatory activities of their offices seriously, because if they fail to do so we will continue to have soot.” 

Political will

Speaking in the same vein, Ross argues “We need political will involving the president, Federal Ministry of Environment, and the state government. It’s not something you can do all at once, but you can start the process, start engaging the federal government, the United Nations. Use some level of advocacy, use the CSOs, and let them build trust with these Kpo fire boys, and start teaching them that there is a way you can burn this stuff without polluting the air.” 

Kpo fire

“Of course, government should be able to provide alternatives to the boys doing the kpo fire business, to discourage them from going back to it. Some of them confessed during our social studies with them, that if they had alternatives they would prefer that than doing the Kpo fire business. We advised government to establish a sustainable study in terms of air quality, so they can produce an air quality index to advice the public,” posits Professor Bernard who argues that the environment has a carrying capacity. He points out that once that is jettisoned, it will return whatever was put in it back to its source.

Modular refineries

“We wish to interface directly with the youths engaged in the Kpo fire business. If we talk directly with them, we can organise them and put them directly into cooperatives, and now use them to apply for the modular refinery. The modular refinery is possibly an alternative to the Kpo fire business. We thought it will be key to make them part of it. Then we will group them together and form cooperative society’s and apply for a licence,” says Dr. Peter Medee, Commissioner for Energy and Natural Resources.

He declares, “The population here is huge. Rivers is a destination and it is like the headquarters of the South South. Governor Wike is involved in huge infrastructural projects and the state is like a huge construction site. If we can provide infrastructure we can attract a lot of industries to the state. The more industries, the more jobs we will create. If we create more jobs, some of these boys in the illegal refining trade will no longer engage in what is illegitimate. Rivers will become a hub of industrialisation.”

Soot lockdown

Ross speaks on the idea of a lockdown. Hear him: “If you lockdown Port Harcourt for one day, you are going to disrupt the logistics of the whole oil and gas sector for one day. There is a cost to lockdowns and how long can you lockdown? A lockdown is a temporary solution. It is a mitigation measure and it doesn’t solve the problem. The long term measure should be how we stop this, because the era of fossil fuels is coming to an end. We are moving to the era of renewable energy. The long term solution is to identify the Kpo fire operators, legalise and control the trade. It’s a federal responsibility. I like to look at it from a broader perspective. It’s not enough to chase them out of the market. It’s going to be very hard.”

Attempts made to speak with the immediate past Rivers state commissioner for Health Professor Princewill Chike were not successful.

Ujorha is a freelance journalist.

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