The Strange Black Soot: The City of Port Harcourt and “the hanging black cloud”.

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 for 10am and you had left home anxious, eager and happy at 9:00 am only to arrive at the Interview Centre at 9:40am and the gateman greeted you with strange questions.

“Excuse me Ma, did you sit on a dirty seat in the Bus you boarded or the car you drove?”. Are you our new Mechanic or you need somewhere to change your clothes?

Still in wonderment of his questions, 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 be “THE 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 emotions has been the lot of many residents of the the southeastern city of Port Harcourt, Nigeria since last 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 SPACES 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, worrisomely described as A DARK CITY engulfed in DARK, HAZY and HAZARDOUS SOOT. The reason for this is not far fetched. For more the two years, 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 of the other. People’s clothes covered in soot, streets are covered in soot, even residents’ bed sheets are covered in soot.

“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 and livelihood for men and animals, like every other air pollutant.

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 is actually or potentially injurious to human, plant or animal life, or property, or which unreasonably interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of life and property. Interestingly, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates 600,000 people die in Africa every year as a result of air pollution. Does the question remain how many residents of Port Harcourt have died as a result of this? As this sounds colossal, this environmental challenge has gone much worse over time and still remains unaddressed with life becoming increasingly difficult and hellish for residents. The soot has become the talk of the town among the city’s residents who are worried about the effects of breathing in the pollutants. As a matter of fact, 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.

As a concerned Environmentalist who shares the same worries with them, I spent days reading about the various reactions “the Strange Black Soot” has generated over time. In a bid to pull together the different bits of a not-too-jigsaw puzzle, I spoke to a number of the city residents and our worries did align. In a telephone Interview, Adudu Phoebe, a student stated: “The air is polluted, the floors are automatically dirty even the chairs. I have serious allergic reactions and it has affected me badly”. Another resident, Nsikan shared during a chat, “The air is dense. It’s black everywhere. You can literally see the soot on your shirt if you’d leave it overnight. The soot is seen on your desk if you clean it. If you take a clean tissue and clean your nostrils, you’d see the blackness that has mixed with the natural mucor,” said Nsikan.

Environmental and Health Hazards associated with Soot

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 heart disease, bronchitis, heart disease and some other respiratory illnesses. They 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 is capable of causing cancer which may lead to premature death. Research has also shown that many premature deaths are directly related to soot in the environment. Environmentalists say the soot has been found to contain sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which cause acid rain when combined with moisture. AFP reports 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.

Possible Causes of the “Strange Black Soot”

The cause of the soot has been something of a mystery. Although Adudu, like many residents and activists believe its as a result of flaring of petroleum products and burning of tires and refineries that are operational in Port Harcourt. While this is the general belief, according to the General Manager of the Port Harcourt Refinery Company (PHRC), the illegal oil activities undertaken by bunkers and vandals is chiefly responsible for the dilemma the city is faced with. In contrary, Mr Peter Idabor, Director General of the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), told journalists in Port Harcourt that the soot is as a result of 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. Some residents have said it’s from people burning cowhide for leather. Some blamed kpo-fires — illegal refineries in Rivers State and much of the oil-rich Niger Delta. Others have blamed everything else under the sun.

However, in a statement released to CNN, Nigeria’s Ministry of Environment said there is a link between the pollution and the operation of illegal oil refineries and their destruction. In the midst of all, the question is What has been done since it started?

CITIZEN LED ADVOCACY ACTIONS

On the 19th of April, 2018, to protest the environmental hazard caused by the soot and following heavy and consistent complaints on the internet about their breathing problems from the black soot, Sandra Ezekwesili, a radio host at Nigerian station Cool FM who had started a social media campaign: #StopTheSoot led thousands of Port Harcourt Residents to the streets. They wore T-Shirts with the ‘Stop the soot’ inscriptions while going around the city, stopping at major junctions to advocate for governmental interventions to address the Soot. After this showdown, a lot was expected but little has happened. “At the initial stage, the government set up a panel to look into the matter and the committee was supposed to give us like a report. But there has been no feedback”, Sandra Ezekwesili, a radio presenter said. Other residents that I spoke with, had different things to say. “Since the awareness started, we’ve only heard about that they’ve been trying to get the culprits. But yet, no improvement. The soot only reduces when it rains, “ said Nsikan. She also added that “Letters have been written as far the UN. Petitions has been signed too. Peaceful protests have been done too. Sensitisation on closing windows has been done too,”. Canon, Founder of Cleancyclers also shared what they have done to ameliorate the situation. “We started the black soot awareness. All that was not enough, so we went on to plant trees to curb the effect because of its ability to absorb carbon which is a core element of what makes up the soot. We also have the green club established in schools here in Port Harcourt where we create awareness and also advocate for a sustainable environment,” said Canon during a Telephone Conversation. Mr Peter Idabor, Director General of the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), told journalists in Port Harcourt that the Ministry of Environment and its affiliated bodies have held several meetings with law enforcement agencies and other stakeholders to end the soot but interestingly, the soot pollution in Port Harcourt is still a huge environmental concern with no solution in sight despite its threat to life and livelihood. However, while this persists, there are different citizens-led measures that can be adopted for a safe living before the air is free of this strange BLACK SOOT.

8 WAYS TO SURVIVE THE BLACK SOOT MENACE

1. Make conscious Use of Nose Mask

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.

2. Keep Windows and Doors Closed

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

3. Reduce Contact with Open spaces

Contact with open space should be reduced in order to avoid your hands touch the soot.

4. General cleaning

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.

5. Washing your hands daily

The implication of not washing their hands after being out all day can’t be overemphasised. While this sounds like a basic advice, it is important to note that it prevents the soot from contact with the mouth. Your hands may have gathered germs and might have touched the open surfaces filled with the soot.

6. Regular Shower

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

7. Keep the skin covered

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

8. Avoid contaminated food.

Eating foods that are exposed to this contaminated air should be avoided as they could have been contaminated.

9. Raise awareness on the Soot

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

Thank you for reading. Kindly drop your comments as I appreciate your feedback. Please check back soon for my new Environmental Series on “15 CURRENT GLOBAL ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES AND POSSIBLE WAYS TO SOLVE THEM”.

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Temilade Salami is an Environmental Activist and Advocate, a Seasoned Poet and a Green Economy Policy Enthusiast. She uses poetry as a tool for advocacy while leveraging on her writing skills to create awareness on key local and global environmental issues. She’s currently studying for a Bachelors Degree in Marine Biology at the University of Lagos. Contact her via Instagram at (@) temidpoet or via Twitter (@) temidpoet_

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